Reflection Prompt Week 1

What are the liberal arts?



  1. In the first chapter of Liberal Arts at the Brink, Victor E. Ferrall discusses different definitions of “liberal arts.” An often used definition is stating what the liberal arts are not. Webster defines the liberal arts as “studies…not in one of the technical fields,” states that “technical” fields are “practical knowledge,” and that liberal arts are not “professional, vocational or technical studies.” While there are obviously big differences between liberal arts schools and other forms of higher education: specifically the small size and intimacy of liberal arts colleges, and the fact that they do provide a broader education, this widely understood explanation that liberal arts colleges do not provide professional, vocational, or technical studies is incorrect and limiting. This perception of complete distinction paints “vocational” schools as the right path and one that sets people up to get jobs afterwards and liberal arts schools as not having this capability, which is untrue. Coming from a family with an investment banker for a father, a lawyer for a mother, and a soldier for the US army as a brother, telling my parents’ friends that I go to liberal arts school always warrants some unpleasantly fraud responses such as “oh” or “how nice for you!” However, as various businesspeople state in their own words on the 19th page, the liberal arts can prepare individuals for professions much more than so-called “vocational” schools can. On page 13, Frederick Rudolph’s definition of education in the nineteenth century is mentioned: “…the American faith in tomorrow, in the unquestionable capacity of Americans to achieve a better world, … the romantic belief in endless progress.” I believe that this definition can also be used to explain liberal arts and the colleges dedicated to them. The liberal arts are not just specific subjects, but foster a way of thinking that include standards of global citizenship, the ability to analyze and question everything, to not be a blind supporter of anything, and to learn the importance of learning, in addition to learning and preparing for specific professions.

  2. When approaching the issue of “liberal arts,”, it is important to first clearly define the domain of discussion. Often it seems that description of liberal arts colleges focuses on quantitative attributes of the school–overall size, teacher to student ratio, selectivity, number of graduate students, etc. Upon closer inspection however, these aspects seem to be more coincident than fundamental, insofar as a small, undergraduate-only school would never be declared a liberal arts college solely on the aforementioned traits. Instead, it seems clear that the most important part of liberal arts education is, unsurprisingly, the nature of the education itself. In his book “Liberal Arts at the Brink”, Victor Ferrall surveys several methods that have been used to classify college curricula, most prominent of which being the Carnegie Foundation’s separation of “vocational” fields from those of liberal arts. Examples of the former include agriculture, engineering, health sciences, and law, while the latter includes English and foreign language studies, mathematics, physical science, and philosophy. There is nothing inherently wrong with this delineation, but it raises the larger question of how these groupings are determined. If one wishes for not only a precise but also a meaningful definition of the liberal arts, deeper analysis is necessary.

    Fortunately, Ferrall presents what seems to be the perceived core of liberal arts education: an appreciation of knowledge as being valuable in itself. This manifests in many positive–albeit always vaguely described–improvements in cognition, often summed up in the catch-all of “critical thinking.” If we assume that this cerebral training is truly the foundation of the liberal arts, then the Carnegie Foundation’s list of liberal arts fields is called into serious question. It seems almost absurd to suggest that the study of engineering or law is somehow incapable of fostering critical thought, while the study of physics and chemistry is simply assumed to have such an effect. The appreciation of knowledge for its own sake is not incompatible with vocational training, just as one can accept that the practicality of what is learned does not negate the enjoyment of learning it. Furthermore, the mere suggestion that fields like chemistry and physics aren’t practical is patently absurd given the wealth of technological advancements that they have brought, and to imply that the love of learning is lost on engineers and lawyers is a truly condescending judgement.

    It would seem appropriate then to abandon a discipline-based approach to liberal arts, as any field of study seems capable of fostering critical thinking skills if taught in the proper fashion. This leaves us with a more honest and defensible definition of liberal arts, but also one that is far harder to quantify. Every college probably seeks to have its students think critically, regardless of how often such desire is put into practice. So how then do we determine which schools are the true liberal arts colleges? It seems that we would have to somehow test the average critical thinking capacity of graduating students, and then compare the results to determine some sort of ranking. A problem with this approach, ignoring the many practical obstacles, is that every school would be a liberal arts college to some degree, based on the test scores of its students. If a vocational school were to get good critical thinking results then it would also be categorized as a liberal arts college, unless one were to define “vocational schools” as having students with the least critical thought (a highly problematic and offensive categorization).

    Until these issues are sorted out, “liberal arts” will continue be a sloppy term that lacks a clear role in intercollegiate comparisons.

  3. Throughout my college search, I was immediately drawn to small, private, liberal arts colleges. I had only applied to liberal arts colleges because I knew that it would be a perfect fit for me. Looking back, I realize how uninformed I was due to my lack of understanding what the liberal arts actually was. I am appalled that I even attend a liberal arts college and do not even understand what that term means. After reading a chapter from Victor Ferrall’s book, Liberal Arts at the Brink, I still find this idea of the liberal arts extremely ambiguous. Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines liberal arts as “the studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) especially in a college or university, that are presumed to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason or judgment)…as opposed to professional, vocational or technical studies” (8). Liberal arts colleges do pride themselves on a well-rounded education filled with a broad spectrum of classes that enhance a student’s ability to think critically about the world and not only about a single career objective and vocational study. However, a liberal arts education does not completely dismiss vocational study. Ferrall writes, “Liberal arts education is not an alternative to vocational training. Rather, it facilitates and enhances the vocational experience by honing the way the mind works and stimulating enthusiasm for using it, and by enriching the entire life experience” (18). I agree with Ferrall on this statement because liberal arts colleges do provide the framework needed to excel in future careers by encouraging students to study all walks of life in addition to their primary career interest. Like the businesswoman Susan Crown, I also believe that a liberal arts education helps students see the world from a larger lens by inspiring young adults to analyze, read, write, and develop their own beliefs and arguments. By promoting intimacy with its small class sizes, faculty and students build strong connections that encourage the students to learn and thrive. These qualities and relationships help students to become more successful after college in their vocation and in the real world. Even though liberal arts remains a term with a plethora of definitions, it is more than just a variety of classes offered at a small school, but it is a foundation that encourages student development and creates critical thinkers that will succeed in their desired vocation based off their extensive knowledge in a variety of worldly topics.

  4. After reading the question and the articles, one definition stuck out to me; and that is that liberal arts is “the nonvocational, non0career-based ‘uselessness’ of the subject matter that opens the door to appreciating knowing for the sake of knowing and that drives home the fact that learning is the value in and of itself, without regard to…a marketable skill” (18). A liberal arts education is structured in a way to allow students to obtain knowledge and show them different ways in which they can utilize it, rather than training them for a specific skill; and to me, that is much more powerful because it permits the student to think “outside the box” and create innovative ways to change and challenge society’s standards for a certain tradition.

    Similar to what my fellow classmates have said above, a liberal arts education trains students to think critically and this skill is important as it allows them to form their own opinions, analyze information thoroughly, and just to think for themselves rather than relying on other sources to dictate their thoughts and opinions. The array of knowledge gained from different subjects at a liberal arts college is enriching and also useful, even though it may not seem so at first because it allows these students to “use that education in the forging of relationships” (19). Understanding culture and other subjects allow these students to gain better insight of how to better interact with others; thus putting them ahead of those went to vocational schools.

  5. The word “liberal arts” has been defined and redefined by many scholars. Webster’s dictionary implies that “liberal arts are fields of knowledge that are not practical” (Ferrall, 8). Throughout the recent years, many have devalued liberal arts colleges because other colleges place emphasis on vocational training in their education. Although there are strengths in these colleges, liberal arts colleges hone in their students something these universities do not: unbounded thinking. This is possible because, as a Pew Charitable Trusts-sponsored Higher Education Roundtable of liberal arts college presidents reveal, “ liberal arts college embodies the ideal of learning as an act of community, in which students and faculty come together to explore and extend the foundations of knowledge. The intimacy…the emphasis placed on teaching” (Ferrall, 14). The small teacher-to-student ratio allows teachers to really focus on the students and teach them to think. Many universities emphasize the research and training that aim to prepare students for jobs; however, there is a flaw in this thinking. This approach instills straightforward thinking in students. They are not taught the skills that are crucial towards navigating the world; there is a lack of passion and curiosity. Because “a liberal arts teaches you how to think: how to analyze…how to develop a persuasive argument…A liberal arts education also offers the ability to focus on large ideas…” (Ferrall, 19). As a result, this type of education “facilitates and enhances the vocational experience by honing the way the mind works and stimulating enthusiasm for using it, and by enriching the entire life experience…” (Ferrall, 18). Through the liberal arts education, we each are given an opportunity to learn from different disciplines, acquiring knowledge that we may use in our later life, in and out of our professions. The great thing about the liberal arts education is that we not only develop skills that will guide us to our jobs, but we also learn how to live. It is safe to say that the liberal arts education may be the best kind of college education, despite what others say. Many people still have a misconception of the “liberal arts” anyways.

  6. The term liberal arts is hard to give a concrete definition for, but has characteristics that are generally understood. For instance when high school students tell their college counselors that they want a liberal arts college; it is generally understood that they are searching for a small school that allows them to have a broader education relative to a strictly vocational one. However, there are more factors that must be considered when giving a school the title “liberal arts”. For instance, today the title works as a quick description of the college and as a rank. Colleges that offer degrees in liberal arts fields are not necessarily considered liberal arts schools because they accept students more easily than a school with said title would. The political nature of the term makes it even harder to make a firm definition. In the book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Victor Ferrall discusses that liberal arts schools must focus on education above all else. The school must be small so that the students and professors are able to learn from each other. This is true for liberal arts colleges, but is not limited to such schools. For instance many community colleges are very small and some students use them for general education that will prepare them for college. However, community colleges are not considered liberal arts colleges, because they are not very prestigious and are often used to get a career. Still, schools like occidental offers ways of getting internships and other methods for trying to get a job after college. Therefore, the definition of liberal arts cannot be concrete because only a handful of schools could be considered liberal arts if there was no leeway.

  7. As a student attending a liberal arts college, I assumed that defining what the liberal arts are would be pretty simple and straightforward. It has become overwhelmingly clear to me that this is not the case. While assumptions of what the liberal arts are are made constantly, the reading Liberal Arts at the Brink by Victor E. Ferrall shows how the definition constantly changes and is often vague or inaccurate. According to Webster’s dictionary “liberal arts are fields of knowledge that are not practical” (pg. 8). However, this is a completely unsatisfying explanation as to what the liberal arts are. According to this definition, the liberal arts do not give students practical knowledge and don’t prepare students for professional, vocational, or technical studies, instead they only aid with general intellectual capacities. While this may be the traditional definition it is quite discouraging to learn that the $60,000 yearly tuition is going towards an education that is good for “nothing practical”.
    As the reading continues the qualifications needed to classify as a liberal arts school change. Ferrall says, “Obviously, liberal arts colleges are ones that offer courses in liberal arts fields of study,” (pg. 9) but defining a liberal arts school by its majors offered is not enough. Many liberal arts schools offer majors that are seen as vocational majors and many vocational colleges offer liberal arts majors. Since this is the case, what is it specifically about the liberal arts college that makes it liberal arts? The reading goes through many different explanations and qualities needed to be a liberal arts school. According to Ferrall, “intimacy distinguishes the liberal arts college experience” (pg.13) however, that doesn’t mean that all small schools are liberal arts school or that all liberal arts schools are small. In the end it seems that the distinguishing factor of the liberal arts is the outlook of the liberal arts students. A liberal arts education leads to students who are curious, with “a desire to know and to understand”, who are interested in learning for the sake of learning, and are interested in the world around them. Classes taken at liberal arts schools are not necessarily applicable in a future career and therefore makes the students focus on their love and desire for knowledge. However, it is not realistic to classify schools based on how curious and appreciative their students are of knowledge. While the distinction between a liberal arts school and a public university still seems to be vague and misunderstood, the results of a liberal arts education seem to be more clearly distinguishable and valued.

  8. A long time ago, the word “liberal” meant being a “gentleman in societal rank”. The original term “liberal arts” was used to describe a place of higher learning that would create a “gentleman” in society. Ferrall points out that once the word “liberal” attained a new popular definition, the academic world should have abandoned the word in favor for a more modern synonym when describing a liberal arts institution. It is better to describe a liberal arts education as a broad education. In a broad education, students experiment and learn from a wide range of subjects instead of one designed major. Although liberal arts enrollment only makes up about 2% of the total undergraduate enrollment of the United States, Ferrall makes the argument that believing a liberal arts education is only right for a few talented individuals is elitist and wrong. To many, the definition of a liberal arts education is an education for the elite because those who partake in a liberal arts education can take the time to study a wide variety of subjects instead of focusing on one marketable field. Although it is true that liberal arts colleges stress the importance of a broad curriculum, many business leaders praise how a liberal arts education prepared them in their careers (page 19 Ferrall).

    Although it seems a little off-topic to talk about how the general population perceives a liberal arts education and how those who have a liberal arts background feel about their education, it is important to note the definition of the liberal arts from multiple perspectives.

  9. The question posed for this weeks reflection is quite straight forward, however the answer proves to be complicated and muddy. As Victor Ferrall in “Liberal Arts Colleges and Why We should Care About Them” introduced a definition of the term liberal arts, it appears that it is easier to define what the liberal arts isn’t than what it is. The liberal arts is a broad area of study that is not specialized or technical to a certain career. These fields of study may include english, social science, math, and science. It is interesting to notice how obscure the term has become. Im sure that if you ask people on the street “What are the liberal arts?” many would not know and perhaps associate the term liberal with its use in the political sphere. And to be honest before I researched and read for this class I was not exactly sure what the liberal arts were myself. I had an idea of what it was since I am currently attending a liberal arts college, but I could not come up with a succinct clear definition of the liberal arts by myself. Various peoples and entities such as the Carnegie foundation mention in Victor Ferrall’s piece attempt to define the liberal arts but taking from their examples it seems that defining the liberal arts clearly is quite the challenge. Taking influence from the Ferrall reading, I would say that the liberal arts is a broad general form of study that allows one to think and reason critically and the future for liberal arts students is also broad since it doesn’t prepare for one certain career. It also relates to and encompasses a certain atmosphere. The atmosphere of liberal arts institutions which are residential, small, and with superior education. I agree with Ferrall’s proposition that liberal arts be associated with educating, while other vocation types of study be associated with training. I hope that throughout my studies in this course I can gain a better knowledge and grasp of the liberal arts.

  10. The liberal arts are a form of higher education that allows for individuals, in a more intimate setting, to learn and acquire skills that inevitably advance one’s life in all aspects; from pursuing a professional career to leading a group of individuals to starting a family. I was taught at a young age of the importance of pursuing the skills of leader. You could say I was raised to uphold the standards of a liberal education. My mother was and is the greatest benefactor to such beliefs and standards to which I have grown accustom to over the years because she was and is a product of the liberal arts education. Her educational experience has not only transformer the way I analyze and processes the world, but rather has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking. Although liberal arts institutions have been looked down on for their size and privatization, Victor E. Ferrall Jr. states in a passage titled “Liberal Arts Colleges and Why We Should Care about Them” that liberal arts “Individuals benefit from being well and broadly educated” helping them strengthen “…both their personal and their professional lives, and as citizens” (16). In short the liberal form of education is a type of learning that creates well rounded individuals through the incorporation of moral learning into intellectual teachings. Liberal arts are a way of engaging multiple aspects and strategies of learning into one to build a society of well-educated, leaders.

  11. The liberal arts seem to be an at times complicated way to describe a form of higher education. No matter where one looks there seems to be many different ways people describe the liberal arts and a liberal arts education. However one thing that is true is that there are many advantages to studying the liberal arts. Liberal arts consist of a handful of different disciplines that seem to hone in on more specific and life applicable fields of study and skills. Victor E. Ferrell describes some characteristics of liberal arts educated persons, saying it creates “curiosity, a desire to know and, especially to understand.” This is what liberal arts bring out in people, curiosity and the want to not just know but also truly understand a subject or concept. The essence of the liberal arts is to bring about a unique passion amongst people who study its courses. This is done so by the way these schools function and teach. Small class sizes, very specific fields of study, and professors whose main focus is to teach all bring about this unique way of teaching that focuses on each student more in depth. These features are what are commonly associated with the liberal arts. Having small classes with dedicated professor allow individuals to analyze more closely subjects, and gain skills in verbalizing thoughts through classroom discussions, which is something you really don’t get in large university lecture halls. The liberal arts are subjects and institutions that focus on the individual development and critical analysis of topics and personal thought, providing skills to students that are becoming increasingly valuable in todays society.

  12. In discussing or difinitively producing explanations for the liberal arts, I do think it is important that we allow our definitions to encompass what liberal arts are in practice and not just in theory. By this I mean that it is equally important to discuss how the liberal arts are currently functioning as it is to discuss what the liberal arts’ mission or goal is. With that being said, I greatly appreciated the Ferrall article because it started by providing data and information that allows us to see the functioning definition of the liberal arts along with the denotative definition of the liberal arts.

    Hence, I first define the liberal arts as a dying institution that serves a minute amount of post-secondary students. I feel that this definition effectively encompasses the functioning reality of the liberal arts, and can serve as referential for those who want to consider what being associated with a liberal arts institution would mean/what groups they would then be a part of (i.e. as a liberal arts student I can now associate myself with about 2% of post-secondary students).

    Another definition that could be offered through Ferrall deals with the foundational function of the liberal arts. By which one could define the liberal arts as an institution that depends on the generosity of resources such as donations. According to Ferrall this is a result of the lack of resources afforded to private liberal arts colleges due to declining demand for their services. Likewise, Gamble define the liberal arts the only academic real that he feels holds any integrity, for it’s end goal does not peak at a lucrative checkpoint and instead provides virtue.

    At bottom, Ferrall defines the liberal arts colleges as the last of a dying breed, to speak colloquially. And with that being said, he urges us to appreciate the functions and services of liberal arts colleges and to value them as we do vocational institutions.

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