Carleton Faculty Reflect on the Meaning of the Liberal Arts
What is a Liberal Arts education? To my mind it is an education in a range of disciplines that allows the individual to become a global citizen and a problem-solver. Unlike many Asian universities where students must declare their major before entering and specialize in that major, a liberal arts education introduces students to a range of disciplines that can later be used to understand issues and problems. Take, for example, the study of Populism, the late-nineteenth century farmers’ movement that called for government regulation of banks, railroads, and the money supply. Historians who study Populism are aided immensely if they have taken introductory economics courses and they can view the farmers’ movement as part of a debate over the regulation of the U.S. economy, a debate that continues today. Similarly, one Carleton history graduate, who has had a long a long and distinguished career as Director of Research at Colonial Williamsburg, got his early break when working on historical archeology because he had taken a drawing class at Carleton and was able to draw what the destroyed buildings he had excavated might have looked like. This versatility is key to a Liberal Arts education.
Cliff Clark, Professor of History
At their simplest, the liberal arts are just a way of organizing human knowledge into manageable pieces: divisions (like natural sciences, social sciences and humanities) and departments (like history, chemistry or economics) and interdisciplinary programs (women's and gender studies or political economy). But much more significantly, the liberal arts offer a profound approach to learning and even to life.
For much of history and in most of the world today, higher education is based on a philosophy that emphasizes deep but potentially narrow learning. Undergraduates are typically educated in a single subject or discipline with the goal of training them to be experts in that area.
The liberal arts model is based on a different philosophy, emphasizing breadth over depth. While students study a major subject, they are encouraged, and in some cases required, to take half or more of their coursework outside their major discipline.
The educational philosophy that animates the liberal arts is grounded in the belief that not only are there many ways of viewing the world but that each lens is worthy of consideration. At their best, the liberal arts provide undergraduates the opportunity to explore and "try on" different understandings of the world. The liberal arts offer the chance to examine how a philosopher explores the human condition compared to an anthropologist or an historian or an artist or a biologist. In addition to broadening our intellectual horizons, a serious and thoughtful exploration across the liberal arts makes us better students of our own discipline, as knowledge of other fields informs and deepens the worldview formed by our own disciplinary perspective. And as we move beyond the purely academic, a liberal arts education ideally makes us better able to consider, understand and be moved by perspectives and visions that differ from our own, be they those of a neighbor or another person who may be geographically or chronologically distant from us.
Michael Hemesath, Professor of Economics