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Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

We are all familiar with popular media reports that question the value of a liberal arts education. Political leaders such as Florida Governor Rick Scott, have led the public discourse with statements like: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” And “I want money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to fundamentally change the mission of the Wisconsin university system to create a technical training model of higher education to focus on jobs fulfillment evidence this perspective. President Obama offered a dismissive comment about the liberal arts when he said: “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” These types of statements indicate of the current rhetorical mood for liberal arts education.

This public debate has raised questions about the future of liberal arts colleges. Granted, there have been spirited defenses of the liberal arts, such as Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education. Additionally, national associations have initiatives aimed at analyzing the effectiveness of a liberal education and disseminating accurate information about liberal arts education, such as The American Association of Colleges and Universities’ LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), the Council of Independent Colleges’ Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education, and the work of the Annapolis Group of Colleges. More locally, CSB/SJU held a significant national conference in July, 2016, “Liberal Arts Illuminate: Lighting the Path Forward,” involving national leaders to discuss the importance of the liberal arts.

The definition of a liberal arts education has changed and adapted over time. The traditional definition of the liberal arts was based on particular disciplines – historically they included the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Of course the particular disciplines that were labeled as liberal arts have evolved over time to adapt to a changing and more complex world.

Today, a liberal arts college has come to mean a small residential college that offers most of its instruction in traditional liberal arts programs. However, the traditional focus on particular disciplines really doesn’t capture what a liberal arts college is.

Georgia Nugent, former president of Kenyon College observed what defines a liberal arts college, “The last several decades have seen some movement away from an epistemological framework based on academic disciplines toward one shaped along more fluid lines of inquiry.” This shift is key, because it suggests that the overall educational environment – curriculum, teaching methods, faculty-student interaction, and co-curricular involvement are all part of what makes a liberal arts education.

The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, a nationally recognized leader in liberal arts education, conducted a major longitudinal study comparing learning outcomes between liberal arts colleges, research universities, and regional institutions. The study found that liberal arts college students “realized significant advantages” in both critical thinking skills and cognitive development. The report suggested “a significant part of the cognitive impact of liberal arts colleges may be exerted by their distinctive instructional and learning environments.” Additionally, the AAC&U’s LEAP project, a national initiative on the importance of a twenty-first-century liberal education, has identified through extensive research the essential outcomes of a liberal education and the educational practices that have the highest impact – such as, first-year experiences, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity and global learning, service learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects.

CSB/SJU is responding to these national trends by developing an innovative curriculum that is intentional in incorporating high-impact practices and a curriculum that intentionally achieves student learning outcomes that are consistent with our mission and that research shows to be essential for the 21st century workforce and citizenship. A faculty committee was charged with evaluating the current curriculum and making recommendations for curricular revisions. The committee produced an extensive report last year and the Faculty Senate approved new learning outcomes for the common curriculum (see reports here). We are now at the stage where three teams of faculty have developed curricular models for the faculty to consider. I am excited at the possibilities because all of these models are innovative and integrative. More importantly, these models are focused on student learning and integrate best practices into our educational model. Additionally, the curricular change will integrate a first year experience that is based on best practices to assist students in their academic and social success in college.

CSB/SJU have a history of offering an excellent liberal arts education. Students are well served by the current curriculum, but the revisions that we will make will advance our liberal arts education to even greater levels of excellence and will continue to focus on what is best for our students.