The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
Assistant Professor of Political Science
It is often said: 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 comes from 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.
—Association of American Colleges and Universities
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, economy, 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 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 Undergraduate Academic Regulations section of the Undergraduate Catalog. There is a common core curriculum of 30 hours of course work that is the framework for the freshman year courses. This core curriculum sets the liberal arts foundation for all degrees. And, when combined with the courses in the major and co-curricular learning experiences, the core curriculum should enable students 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
Students can connect the courses they take 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 students may need to look at the course objectives or description on the syllabus. Now, imagine a web of 100-level through 400- or 500-level courses that connect together to form the undergraduate degree. The connections between these courses are real and come from the above list. Students are not simply “checking off courses” on a degree sheet. They are building an interactive set of skills and content knowledge for a liberal arts education, whether it is for a degree in history, forensic chemistry, social work, or accountancy.
But 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 2015 report, the top five skills or qualities desired in job candidates were the ability to:
1. work in a team structure
2. make decisions and solve problems
4. plan, organize, and prioritize work
5. obtain and process information
Hart Research Associates surveyed 318 employers in 2013 for a report to the Association of American Colleges and Universities titled “It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” The respondents highlighted the importance of innovative, creative thinking as well as ethical judgment, integrity, and intercultural skills. We also hear employers underscore the value of the liberal arts education, and increasingly point to demonstrated application of knowledge during your years at the university.
“More than three in four employers say they want colleges to place more emphasis on helping students develop five key learning outcomes, including critical thinking, complex problem solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings. Employers endorse several educational practices as potentially helpful in preparing college students for workplace success. These include practices that require students to conduct research and use evidence-based analysis; gain in-depth knowledge in the major and analytic, problem-solving, and communication skills; and apply their learning in real-world settings.
Employers recognize the importance of liberal education and the liberal arts. The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success. Eighty percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, every college student should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. When read a description of a twenty-first-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.
Employers endorse a blended model of liberal and applied learning. Across many areas tested, employers strongly endorse educational practices that involve students in active, effortful work—practices including collaborative problem solving, internships, research, senior projects, and community engagements. Employers consistently rank outcomes and practices that involve application of skills over acquisition of discrete bodies of knowledge. They also strongly endorse practices that require students to demonstrate both acquisition of knowledge and its application.” http://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/it-takes-more-major-employer-priorities-college-learning
The University of Mississippi campus is full of these opportunities. Faculty members across our campus explicitly foster these skills and opportunities. Student services staff members work diligently to help students connect with enrichment opportunities beyond the classroom. Students should seek out these opportunities, and take these messages to heart. They should be conscious of how each course and co-curricular activity will add these skills, values, knowledge, and experiences to the resume. Maybe they can build a portfolio to showcase for future employers or graduate/professional school admissions committees. Students will get a valuable education at UM and prepare for a rich, meaningful life.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from http://aacu.org/leap/index.cfm
Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2013). It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, D.C.: Hart Research Associates.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2015). Job Outlook 2015. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/Research/Job_Outlook/Job_Outlook.aspx