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The Liberal Arts, or: Haley learns something obvious

Before I get into the bulk of this post, a minor update: I’m going to be presenting this project at UMW’s Kemp Symposium, which is in actuality kind of a big deal. I’m not sure how I’m going to present the project yet or what kind of resources I’ll have at my disposal (i.e. a screen, or just a podium) but it’ll come out to a 15 minute overview of my research. I am both super excited and quite nervous, but what else is new?

Back to the actual project, I’ve recently realized that the idea of “liberal arts education” is a far more complex concept than I had assumed. I’d always taken it at face value: “liberal arts” refers primarily to the humanities, and therefore a “liberal arts education” has a similar focus. Turns out I was working under a painfully narrow assumption of what the liberal arts really are. Since the phrase crops up quite frequently in discussions of open online education, though, I finally asked Dr. Whalen what exactly all of these researchers and teachers and scholars mean by “liberal arts.” He informed me that there is (surprise surprise) an entire mindset and tradition informing the concept behind it. This week on “Haley’s Mind Is Blown,” I’m going explore those definitions, and look into how that informs my research overall.

This post probably won’t mean a great deal to anyone who’s immersed in teaching¬† or administration at a liberal arts college (or anyone who didn’t utterly miss the memo about this) but it strikes me that I might not be the only student who isn’t 100% clear on this definition. I’m mostly attacking this for my own benefit, though.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the liberal arts can be defined, broadly, as follows:

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.

Okay, this is useful. From this definition I can infer that a liberal arts education does not, as I had previously assumed, focus entirely on the humanities, and is instead more concerned with offering students a broad, multidisciplinary approach to learning. Again, how did I so completely misconstrue this? It might be thanks to the kind of education that’s held up in contrast to liberal arts, which focuses deeply on one particular field or vocation, often in one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines. Despite the fact that the next article I found is less than stellar and hosted on FastWeb, the contrast it provides between two different schools within the College of California-Berkeley is nonetheless illuminating:

The engineering degree through the College of Letters and Science, for example, will likely require more classes in language, history and literature. Meanwhile, the engineering degree from the College of Engineering will not require as many classes in the social sciences…

I think I can see why so many people who are working in the realm of digital education and edtech feel the need to frame it specifically in the context of the liberal arts: the kinds of tools and teaching techniques being explored seem to lend themselves well to fields that are already heavily engaged with emerging technologies, while liberal arts schools would stereotypically take a more analog approach. All of the pedagogy I’m studying, though, lends itself beautifully to the kind of interdisciplinary work the liberal arts requires, but I can understand why the argument needs to be made in the first place: despite my initial misunderstanding, the liberal arts can often be a land of books, of tradition, a place where innovation doesn’t always take hold as readily as it could. I’m not saying that STEM fields never face stagnation, especially in the way research is conducted and distributed, but when the whole purpose of your discipline is to design new technologies the idea of integrating tech into the classroom can seem like a moot point. That’s why people like Bryan Alexander and Alan Levine and everybody I work for at DTLT are so important; they’re pushing toward flexibility and change within an educational style that places a great deal of weight on history and tradition. At the same time, the liberal arts are a place where creativity is also paramount, so students and teachers alike are currently faced with a bit of a paradox in that regard. But the conversations are happening, innovation and the integration of tech and new pedagogies is happening. There’s friction, and that’s usually a decent predictor of forward motion.


  1. A concerned co-student A concerned co-student

    Umm duh, Haley. That’s why one of your biffles can be a bio major and not get kicked out because “we don’t want your kind round here”. Also, that’s why they make English majors take a science class, and Biology majors take history classes etc, but my Bro, who goes to a non Liberal-Arts Art School (conservative arts school?) only has to take specific art classes for his degree requirements.

    The more you know!

    • aetherbunny aetherbunny

      Haha, basically yeah. But at least I’m learning. And what better way to showcase my own ignorance than writing about it online?

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