What does "liberal arts" mean?

Susan Hartley Brisson

In your search for your college home, you’ll experience plenty of new ideas and plenty of new vocabulary.  As you pare down your list of colleges to a manageable number, you’ll need to determine what sort of institution will be best for you:  large university, technical institute or liberal arts college.  But what does all that mean?

The liberal arts and a liberal education is something that lots of folks talk about, but not so many understand exactly what it is. The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines it this way:

. . .  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.

Source: https://www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education

Strictly speaking, the “liberal arts” are subjects that are studied as part of a liberal education:  Humanities, social studies, sciences and mathematics.  And a liberal arts college generally refers to an institution of higher learning where students study such subjects broadly with particular depth in one or two main areas (majors).  These colleges focus on undergraduate education and are frequently smaller (under 4000 students), and usually residential (students live together on campus).   A strong sense of identity and community is fostered there which is part of the educational experience.  Students and faculty often have close relationships, and learning takes place in both a traditional classroom setting as well as through dialogue and fellowship in the student center, on the playing fields and other informal venues around campus.  If you’ve ever seen a college poster where stately buildings sit on a hillside, and autumnal hued leaves are scattered across a wide quadrangle, that’s the look!

At a liberal arts college, students are just as likely to major in physics or math, as they are in English or economics, and regardless of the major they choose, they will take some courses in all these areas in the form of distribution requirements.  That’s something else to consider as you do your research about colleges:  what kinds (and how many) courses you’ll be required to take in addition to those in your major.  If you look back at the definition quoted above, you’ll notice that in addition to learning academic subjects, you’ll also acquire practical skills that are transferrable across disciplines.  Those skills of communication, critical thinking and analysis are the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

Image from http://blog.cengagebrain.com

But wait!  Just to make this more confusing:  larger universities can also offer liberal arts education.  A university is made up of smaller colleges and schools, one of which might just be a College of Arts and Sciences – which is essentially a liberal arts college within a larger university.  No matter what type of post-secondary institution you choose, there will be trade-offs and compromises to be made, so make sure that you do your research!

You can see that a liberal arts education not only involves exposure to a variety of subjects, but also seeks to cultivate skills like analytic thinking, strong communication and the ability to see connections in the world.  At Olin College of Engineering, the liberal arts also play an important role within our interdisciplinary, project-based curriculum.  We talk about engineering as the business of solving problems to make the world a better place.  The Olin curriculum is based on the idea that engineering starts with people -- understanding who we’re designing for, what they value, and where opportunities to create value exist -- and ends with people -- appreciating the social context of our work and making a positive difference in the world. Students in all majors take a common set of classes that connect areas of engineering and integrate math, science, humanities and social science.  Come visit us and see for yourself!

Posted in: Susan