The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
by Holly Reynolds
Associate Dean and
Assistant Professor of Political Science
“When we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.” —Martha Nussbaum, 1998
Chancellor Dan Jones often says: The University of Mississippi is the flagship liberal arts university in the State of Mississippi. What does this mean? And, what is the value of a liberal arts education?
From the origins of Western civilization in the ancient world comes the concept of a liberal arts education. The term has origins in the Greek word eleutheros and the Latin word liber, both meaning “free.” For free (male) citizens to fully participate in Athenian democracy, they needed certain skills in critical thinking and communication developed through a broad education in seven disciplines: the trivium, or verbal arts, consisting of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the quadrivium, or numerical arts, consisting of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. Such an education celebrated and nurtured human freedom and early democracy.
The term liberal arts education does not mean an education that indoctrinates students in the political ideology of liberalism or the thoughts of those labeled as political liberals.
In modern times, we can look to the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) for a contemporary understanding of this concept.
Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. The broad goals of liberal education have been enduring even as the courses and requirements that comprise a liberal education have changed over the years. Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.
You regularly will hear proponents of a liberal arts education cite some combination of the skills listed above as the mark of a well-educated citizen who is able to fully participate in our society and democracy. Those trained in the liberal arts are ready for the widest array of career options. Liberal arts education is still about nurturing human freedom by helping people discover and develop their talents. Many of you have at least an implicit understanding that you enrolled at The University of Mississippi to acquire or deepen these areas of knowledge and skills mentioned above. Understandably, many students and parents are focused on preparing for the workforce as the American economy continues the shift towards information age jobs in a dynamic global economy. A liberal arts education is the best preparation for such uncertainty. Better yet, it prepares you for a meaningful life.
Faculty members at The University of Mississippi developed a vision for the liberal arts education that is the basis for every undergraduate degree on campus. Look at the core curriculum and the learning outcomes listed in the Degree Requirements section of your Undergraduate Catalog, found in the general Academic Regulations chapter near the front. There is a common core curriculum of 30 hours of course work that is the framework for your freshman year courses. This core curriculum sets the liberal arts foundation for your degree. And, when combined with the courses in your major and your co-curricular learning experiences, the core curriculum should enable you to:
1. study the principal domains of knowledge and their methods of inquiry
2. integrate knowledge from diverse disciplines
3. analyze, synthesize, and evaluate complex and challenging material that stimulates intellectual curiosity, reflection, and capacity for lifelong learning
4. communicate qualitative, quantitative, and technological concepts by effective written, oral, numerical, and graphical means
5. work individually and collaboratively on projects that require the application of knowledge and skill
6. understand a variety of world cultures as well as the richness and complexity of American society
7. realize that knowledge and ability carry with them a responsibility for their constructive and ethical use in society
Connect the courses you are taking this semester with the learning outcomes listed above. Sometimes it is very easy to make the connection due to the title of the course. In other cases you may need to look at the course objectives or description on the syllabus and think about our larger goals for your education. Now, imagine a web of 100-level through 400- or 500-level courses that connect together to form your undergraduate degree. The connections between these courses are real and come from the above list. You are not simply “checking off courses” on a degree sheet. You are building an interactive set of skills and content knowledge for a liberal arts education, whether it is for a degree in history or a degree in accountancy.
But you don’t have to take my word for the value of a liberal arts education. Employers regularly espouse the positive qualities of a liberal arts education. Let’s see how the skills and knowledge listed from the UM catalog show up on a few national employer surveys.
Each year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveys its employer members. From the Job Outlook 2011 report, the top five skills or qualities desired in job candidates were:
1. verbal communication skills
2. strong work ethic
3. teamwork skills
4. analytical skills
UM faculty members explicitly foster communication, teamwork, and analytical skills. Your course work and co-curricular activities certainly will provide opportunities to further develop the personal qualities of a strong work ethic and taking initiative.
Another employer survey reveals similar findings. Hart Research Associates interviewed 302 employers for the 2010 Association of American Colleges and Universities publication Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. Two findings are relevant. First, a majority of employers surveyed heavily emphasized learning outcomes related to liberal arts education. Seventy percent or more of those surveyed thought universities should place more emphasis on the following eight learning outcomes:
1. written and oral communication
2. critical thinking and analytical reasoning
3. the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings
4. complex problem-solving and analysis
5. ethical decision-making
6. teamwork skills
7. innovation and creativity
8. concepts and developments in science and technology
What do employers expect of college grads? Again, compare this list with the outcomes generated by UM faculty as the goals for our undergraduate degrees. No matter which degree you ultimately earn at The University of Mississippi, you will be ready to face a variety of challenges whatever path you take after graduation.
The second interesting finding from this survey was that respondents see strong positive benefits from certain educational experiences that foster active learning and research skills. The following chart gives the percentage of respondents agreeing that each type of educational experience would help “a lot or a fair amount” to prepare students for success.
84%—Expect students to complete a significant project before graduation that demonstrates their depth of knowledge in their major and their acquisition of analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills
81%—Expect students to complete an internship or community-based field project to connect classroom learning with real-world experiences
81%—Expect students to develop the skills to research questions in their field and develop evidence-based analyses
73%—Expect students to work through ethical issues and debates to form their own judgments about the issues at stake
65%—Expect students to acquire hands-on or direct experience with the methods of science so they will understand how scientific judgments are reached
The University of Mississippi campus is full of these opportunities. Faculty members across our campus regularly incorporate active learning opportunities in their courses. Student services staff members work diligently to help you connect with enrichment opportunities beyond the classroom. Seek out these opportunities while you are here.
Finally, Chancellor Jones launched a campuswide campaign promoting service as the central theme of his administration and talks regularly about transformation through service. In his inauguration speech in April 2010, Chancellor Jones said, “Our University has the position of being the flagship liberal arts university for a state that has dramatic needs, so I do want us to clearly focus on what we can and should be doing to not only transform individual lives, but to transform communities, and I mean community in the broad sense of local, state, nation and world.” Begin practicing the responsibility of your liberal arts education now.
Take these messages to heart. Be conscious of how each course and co-curricular activity will add these skills, values, knowledge, and experiences to your resume. Build a portfolio to showcase your liberal arts education for future employers or graduate/professional school admissions committees. You will get a valuable education and prepare yourself for a rich, meaningful life.
“A thoughtful definition of a liberal arts education will vary depending on whom you ask. It will almost certainly include the following ideas, adapted from a statement from the AAC&U:
knowledge of human culture and the physical and natural world; intellectual skills, including analysis and synthesis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, and problem solving; personal and social responsibility including ethical reasoning, civic knowledge, and global awareness; and the foundation for lifelong learning.
There are many other ideas that could be added to this list. Whatever the final wording of our definition of a liberal arts education, I would emphasize that it is the rigor and depth of a liberal arts education that leads to developing the facility of deep and nuanced thinking, and that can lead to professional success and, as importantly, to a meaningful and flourishing personal life.”
—Glenn Hopkins, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts
Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://aacu.org/leap/index.cfm
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2010). Raising the Bar: Employers’ Views on College Learning in the Wake of the Economic Downturn. Washington, D.C.: Hart Research Associates.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2011). Job Outlook 2011. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/Research/Job_Outlook/Job_Outlook.aspx