Defining a Liberal Arts Major

Over the past few months I’ve been spending more time than usual in discussions about the value and mission of liberal arts education, coming at it from a few different directions. This seems to align with an increased number of articles in various sources (mainstream and higher-ed focused) about the value of the liberal arts. There are a lot of pieces to the challenging problem of explaining liberal arts education. One piece I keep coming back to, though, is my frustration with the phrase “liberal arts majors”, generally intended to mean arts and humanities majors.

If it were up to me, we would insist on being clear that at a liberal arts institution that truly embraces its mission, all of its majors are liberal arts majors. I understand that underlying much of these conversations is a need to defend the value of the humanities and arts, but from my own disciplinary perspective I fear that this lets science and technology programs off the hook for their own obligations towards a liberal arts philosophy.

If done properly, a liberal arts STEM major is not just a STEM major as would be experienced at any institution with some extra gen ed distribution requirements tacked on. The program itself should reflect the interconnectedness of disciplines from across the institution and ensures students can approach problems broadly as well as deeply. Further, taking on a liberal arts perspective ought to change how each course itself is taught; it is a mindset that the instructor should adopt towards the range of interests and priorities their students might have. This might be reflected in pedagogy, in course problems and examples, or even in the scope and specifics of course content.

While certainly not an absolute, it is frequent that liberal arts institutions or liberal arts programs within larger institutions are relatively small entities. This means that the faculty can work together to build a shared vision of a liberal arts education and integrate it within their own disciplinary perspective. STEM faculty have an obligation to provide a robust liberal arts education the same as their colleagues in other disciplines. Falling into informal language suggesting that some disciplines are what constitute the “liberal arts” and other disciplines simply coexist with them works against the unified mission that ought to exemplify a liberal arts education.

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