What is Liberal Art Education
Here are a few more reasons why liberal art is important
Recently, with the heated calls for more science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) education at all levels, the traditional arts of liberality have been unnecessarily, even ruthlessly, portrayed as villains. And STEM fields have been (incorrectly) portrayed as the opposite of the liberal arts.
Liberal arts critics (who usually mean "humanities" by the humanities) tend to argue that STEM-based training is trained for careers while non-STEM training does not. They are often suspicious of the liberal political agenda of some disciplines. And they consider the content of a liberal art education no longer relevant. The author of a recent article was simply titled, “The liberal arts are dead; Long Live STEM conveyed this feeling when he said, "Science is better for society than art."
I even see this misunderstanding in my own institution, as a humanist who takes care of the counseling before starting university and thus deals with students and lecturers (and parents) from all over the university. The idea that STEM is different from the liberal arts is detrimental to both the sciences and its sister disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.
Pro-STEM attitudes assume that the liberal arts are curious, impractical, often elitist, and always selfish, while STEM fields are practical and technical while representing "the future" and "good earnings".
STEM is part of the liberal arts
First, let's be clear: this is a false and misleading dichotomy. STEM disciplines are part of the liberal arts. Mathematics and science are liberal arts.
In ancient times and in the Middle Ages, when the liberal arts as we know them began to form, they included grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (the last three we would now refer to as STEM disciplines, and music, how sound was dealing with numerical relationships was actually more of what we would call physics today.
Proponents of STEM miss the point. The value of a liberal arts education lies not in the content taught, but in the method of teaching and in the intellectual skills that can be acquired through systematic and rigorous learning.
These intellectual skills include making assumptions; Develop problem-solving strategies; Testing ideas against evidence; grapple with information to come to new conclusions; and develop courses of action to pursue these conclusions.
Yes, some disciplines may prepare for certain types of problem solving (how can I get computers to integrate information from two different consumer data platforms in the most elegant way possible?). (What do I recommend to investors based on my French? Market research in Madagascar?).
Some areas of knowledge may be more useful than others in certain industries.
In all cases, the liberal arts approach is about learning how to think, not just what to know - especially since information can now be easily accessed through Google and smartphones. If anything, the content is too extensive for a single person to master. It is much more important to know what on earth has to do with the information overload in most situations.
And this is where the liberal art education comes in.
Liberal arts education (STEM based or otherwise) involves not only learning content, but also knowing how to sort out ambiguities. Working with inaccurate or incomplete information, evaluating contexts, and developing conclusions or approaches.
In other words, it's not about learning the recipe to get a textbook result. It's about having the intellectual ability to tackle those issues for which there is still no metaphorical text or answer.
Is the free art the choice of the elite?
Let's record the elephant in the room. Many people would argue that engineering degree matched with some English courses might be a good idea.
But for a student studying English or studio arts, this is sheer madness. What do you do with studying art in a studio other than becoming a starving artist? What do you do with an English degree other than waiting tables?
Those who make such arguments tend to mix up "humanities" with "humanities", those disciplines that have no obvious "career goal" or "pay score" on the other side of the college degree.
When critics hear that educators like me say that "the liberal arts" are valuable, they understand us to be doing something at the core of our souls. That is, the humanities are personally and intellectually valuable, but not compensatory.
You will hear that we recognize that the humanities are downright impractical and are therefore the elite and privileged who can afford to give in to them. But the idea that science and technology are the only rewarding jobs is stupid.
In fact, there are entire industries that are not based on STEM premises: media, consulting, fashion, finance, publishing, education, government, and other forms of public service are just a few.
And even the supposedly "tech" industries that STEM believes to be our future (IT, health, energy) require all kinds of non-technical workers for their companies to work.
Basic communication, speaking, and writing skills are an absolute must for anyone looking to climb the ladder in any high-tech industry.
What is success?
That said, the so-called "practical" major (and I decline the designation) could have an obvious path to entry-level work in a solid career. This is only because the major has what appears to be a well-known professional path.
However, this does not guarantee success in this area.
Indeed, the other disciplines that the liberal arts reject (read: humanities) adopting dead ends could be a fantastic stepping stone to an amazing professional life.
They are not a guarantee of a - nor are they - a STEM degree. But they give those students who have been serious about studying excellence within their college discipline (classics, anthropology, or theoretical physics) the ability and ability to achieve one.
Some people speak of it as critical thinking; some as the ability to think outside the box; some as "transferability" - the ability to transfer critical intellectual skills from one challenge or industry to another.
From my point of view, liberal education makes you smarter and able to be more successful and innovative on the path you have chosen. And while we can all point out exceptions (had Bill Gates graduated!), It's mostly those who know how to think nimble, creatively, and responsibly in order to end up building exceptional careers.
Why do we need liberal arts education?
Let's return to my previous point about STEM disciplines.
Not only should we accept that they are part of a liberal arts education, but we must understand that teaching in a liberal arts framework makes the financial investment of learning from them more valuable.
Peter Robbie, an engineering professor at Dartmouth College who teaches human-centered design, explains why liberal education is so important to engineering education. He told me in an email that:
The creative design process of engineering offers the possibility for complex, multidisciplinary problem solutions. We need to raise leaders who can solve the "bad problems" that society faces (such as obesity, climate change and inequality). These are multifactorial problems that cannot be solved in a single area, but depend on liberally trained, expansive thinkers who are comfortable in many areas.
As we know, an engineer with basic cultural skills (e.g. through cultural studies) will be an attractive asset to an American engineering firm looking to set up in China.
Likewise, a doctor who knows how to listen to patients will be a better family doctor than one who only knows the memorable facts of medical school. This is one reason that medical schools recently changed application requirements to encourage work in sociology and psychology.
It is the ability to use these skills that are refined by different ways of thinking in different contexts. This enables people to build beyond their specific knowledge.
And that's what a liberal arts education - science, technology, humanities, and social sciences - creates. It prepares students for rich, creative, meaningful and yes affordable careers.
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