The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

By Robert W. Andrews

The liberal arts educational system is more than two thousand years old, dating back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. The foundation of the system rests on the belief that all free people need a well-rounded education in order to have a free and civilized citizenry. Today, although the curriculum has expanded, the general purpose remains the same.  

Greene & Greene’s The Hidden Ivies is a great college search tool. In Chapter One the authors outline the value of a liberal arts education. This chapter serves as an explanation as to why the Schuler Scholar Program requires its students to apply to and attend highly selective liberal arts colleges.  A summary of the first chapter follows. 

The goal of a liberal arts education is to develop “an intelligent and well educated person who can converse knowledgeably about a variety of subjects and has learned how to learn” (Greene & Greene, 2009 p.12). The vast majority of colleges and universities in the world are vocational in nature, training students for a particular job. A liberal arts education teaches students to learn so they can be successful in multiple professions, even ones that develop in the future.

A solid liberal arts education seeks to cultivate the following:

·         critical thinking skills through exposure to a broad based education.
·         a sense of moral and ethical responsibility.
·         the ability to think rationally.
·         the ability to analyze information with intelligence.
·         a spirit of compassion towards others.
·         the tools to become a life-long learner.
·         an appreciation for the arts and literature in the hopes of inspiring their lives.
·         the ability to utilize the historical past to provide life lessons to shape the future   of society.

Many liberal arts colleges articulate this in their own ways based on their particular mission and values.  It is important to look at each college’s approach to the liberal arts.

For example, Amherst College’s mission statement is as follows:

Terras irradient “Let them give light to the world.” 1821

Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.

Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community. Working with faculty, staff, and administrators dedicated to intellectual freedom and the highest standards of instruction in the liberal arts, Amherst undergraduates assume substantial responsibility for undertaking inquiry and for shaping their education within and beyond the curriculum.

Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.

What does this say about the education you will receive at Amherst? What are the outcomes that Amherst hopes its’ students will gain by joining its’ community? Many liberal arts colleges have similar mission statements and goals because the overarching goal of a liberal arts education is the same: to develop individuals who will be lifelong learners, able to adapt to the ever changing world.  According to Greene & Greene (2009), “only 4% of those enrolled in higher education attend residential liberal arts colleges.” (16) It is a privilege to attend these institutions because of the attention you receive while there.  A liberal arts education works because of the size and scope. Specifically this educational model is successful because of:

Faculty commitment to teaching in small classes that encourages the development of multiple intelligences.

Liberal arts colleges emphasize a student’s pursuit of his/her undergraduate education.  Faculty chooses to work in these environments to not only focus on their own scholarly research, but to mentor young minds in their fields.  Small class sizes give faculty the ability to teach to different learning styles rather than focus solely on dispensing information through lectures.  Students have more opportunity develop intimate relationships with their professors who not only mentor them academically, but can also coach students in all aspects of their lives.

Opportunities to participate in research and the ability to synthesize research experience with faculty who teach.

With limited or no graduate students present on a liberal arts college campus, faculty seeks out undergraduates to help them with their scholarly research.  Undergraduates have more opportunity to work side by side with full-time professors in scientific research, grant and paper writing, internships, and artistic endeavors. 

The interaction with a diverse student body and faculty in a residential setting.

An underlying value of any liberal arts education is diversity of study, as well as diversity of the student and faculty populations. As the world becomes smaller, society must learn to interact and understand multiple perspectives. Students at liberal arts colleges will find themselves at institutions that have the luxury of being able to recruit students and faculty from all over the world. More importantly, because these colleges are small and residential, students will have the benefit of living, learning and socializing with a diverse population. 

Opportunities for leadership and engagement in and outside of the classroom that lead to higher graduation rates.

Attending a small college with vast resources provides opportunities for students to take on a variety of leadership roles as an undergraduate. These experiences, in addition to strong connections with faculty, result in happier student bodies and those with higher graduation rates than their peers attending other institutions. 

Varied support services to address the whole student (academic, career and financial advisers).

Small liberal colleges are able to provide more intimate and personalized services for students than large institutions can. These schools will provide comprehensive academic, career, and financial advisers for all of their students.

Less multiple choice assessment tools in the classroom and more opportunities for independent thinking making for stronger candidates for employment and graduate school admissions.

With faculty engagement as a priority, students can expect to be assessed in multiple ways in the classroom. They will have few “multiple choice” exams and more comprehensive research papers, essay exams, and projects. With faculty having less students to teach, it frees up their time to provide more varied feedback. Students are able to meet informally with faculty to see if they are mastering the material prior to formal exams. “Learning how to write and thinking skills are necessary to make coherent arguments” are the hallmark of a liberal arts education (Greene & Greene 2009, p19).  These skills make students graduating from liberal arts colleges sought after candidates for employment and graduate school admissions, particularly medical and law schools.

The Schuler Scholar Program believes that a liberal arts education will position students to be the most successful during college and beyond.  Armed with a broad based education that values breadth, as well as depth, students will graduate college able to be active members of their community and contribute to society at large.

For an easy to use handout on the value of a liberal arts education visit our website at: .


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