The Value of a Liberal Arts Education
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 the verbal arts – grammar, logic, and rhetoric – and the numerical arts – arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. Such an education celebrated and nurtured human freedom and early democracy.
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 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 take my word for the value of a liberal arts education.
The 2019 National Association of
Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey of leading executives provides the list of top attributes or skills desired in job candidates. What is the number one skill desired every year? Written communication. See more of the skills listed on the table. These are precisely the skills gained in a liberal arts education.
The 2018 report, Fulfilling the American Dream: Liberal Education and the Future of Work, by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) provides a survey of the most valuable experiences desired among college graduates. Responses among executives and hiring managers with over 50% support are shown.
This survey showcases how communication skills, critical thinking, and working with a variety of people are still at the heart of our world needs. And, employers want graduates who have gotten off campus and learned more about “the real world” by being in it. Plan those college experiences, which are part of a liberal arts education, no matter your specific choice of a major.
The University of Mississippi campus is full of opportunities for students to refine their skill set, gain valued experiences, and learn about themselves and the world around them – the essense of a liberal arts education. Faculty members explicitly foster these skills and opportunities. Student services staff members work diligently to help students connect with enrichment opportunities beyond the classroom. Students will get a valuable education at UM and prepare for a rich, meaningful life.
By Holly Reynolds, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts