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What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.


Do The Liberal Arts Matter? May 25, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Well, yes, but not as a crutch.

Let me explore that a bit. For my sins, I have a liberal arts degree. My degree is in psychology and, late in my college career, a bunch of pre-medicine courses that could still be reasonably interpreted as the liberal arts. I went on for a masters in psychology, because I initially saw myself as a researcher, but moved to mathematics and computer science because that was what caught my attention.

The problem is that too many young people see the liberal arts, and business, as an easy route to a bachelors degree. They are in school, perhaps at their parents behest, or more reasonably because that was what was expected of them by their peers and society. Lacking direction, they seek the most efficient route to a degree, and all too often that means not fully exercising their intellect.

My story is slightly different. I was among the first of my extended family to go to college, and coming from a decidedly working class family, it was a bit of a transition. I didn’t have the perspective to understand what I wanted to do in life. I needed a certain level of emotional and intellectual maturity before diving into the hard sciences.

Fareed Zakaria says that he learned to write because of a liberal arts education. That sentiment is misguided. You can write with any degree. Fareed, the fact that you couldn’t write without a liberal arts degree is your problem, not the fault of your education. You most certainly could learn to write with a STEM degree. And people who graduate with a liberal arts degree don’t necessarily know how to write. If that is your best argument, you are doing the liberal arts a disservice.

What the liberal arts do is give you a broad education, and a foundation on which to build for the future. That future should, no must, include other education. If you are looking for the fastest way out of college, you are not getting a liberal arts education; you are cheating yourself.

I realize that this thesis requires some self-awareness of your goals and how to achieve them, something that I didn’t necessarily have at eighteen (and it’s not clear that I do now, but allow me a mulligan). But I did have an overriding desire to learn and understand. If you don’t, you are not getting a liberal arts education, whatever your major.

Mr. Zaharia conflates a curriculum with a learning process, and that is dangerously wrong. A liberal arts degree is valuable. But because you have one doesn’t mean you have a liberal arts education.