I’ve participated in multiple discussions over the last few days, all of which are relevant to an important issue facing the country. The question of interest is the effect of a liberal arts education to valued life outcomes.
It’s first important to note that the term “liberal arts education” is not uniformly understood. From one perspective, the term is a property of an institution – some are liberal arts institutions; others, are not. From another perspective, the term is a function of individual experiences of students. Certainly, the ambiguity of the phrase “liberal arts education” is problematic for public arguments promoting its design. We have all been in conversations that equate the term “liberal arts” only with the humanities, missing its support of multi-disciplinary educational experiences. I have even heard the misinterpretation of the analog phrase, “liberal education,” as describing a political orientation of the education rather than its broad, multi-disciplinary curriculum. As academics describe the role of a liberal arts education, we need to acknowledge the common misinterpretation of the phrase by many outside the university.
Further complicating the discussion is that we’re not clear about what components of a liberal arts education are key to its outcomes. The stereotypical image is that of a small college, with a residential undergraduate population, small classes, a curriculum that forces exposures to multiple disciplines, serious attention to teaching among the faculty, and a rich set of extracurricular activities.
This perspective forces attention not to the experience of the student. It implies that different students at the same institution may experience different dosages of the features of a liberal arts education. It also implies that the same major across different institutions may have different educational experience (e.g., majors in philosophy at MIT or in engineering at Swarthmore vs. the same majors at the other institution).
Separately, I was reminded of the Gallup/Purdue survey of predictors of engagement in one’s career and well-being, using self-reported undergraduate experiences. It finds six strong predictors of these life outcomes:
1. I had a professor who made me excited about learning;
2. My professors cared about me as a person;
3. I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals;
4. I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete;
5. I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning;
6. I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations.
Some of these attributes, especially those involving connections between students and faculty, require a faculty interested in teaching and interaction with undergraduates. These are hoped-for attributes of a liberal arts education. The attribute of extracurricular activities is more common in residential institutions than commuter institutions. So, some of these indicators might be natural features of many liberal education experiences.
Of course, the Gallup work is not singularly focused on identifying the effects of an undergraduate liberal education versus those of other educational designs. As we attempt to understand more about what features of a traditional liberal education produces its valuable outcomes, it does seem attractive to identify, from the student perspective, what experiences are key to those outcomes. This leaves open the possibilities that the “dosage” of those experiences will vary over students in the same institution. Further, it will help identify what features of liberal education deserve more investment by liberal arts institutions and which might be adopted by other institutions, to the benefit of students.