Defining Liberal Arts

This week Kaitlin ’16 submits a helpful post on the meaning of a liberal arts education.

Hi everyone! So today I have a slightly more serious topic for you, but an important one nonetheless. Many of the students I’ve talked to mention that they’re excited about Mudd because it’s a liberal arts school. But not everyone I’ve talked to really has a grasp of what a liberal arts education means. To many, it means small class sizes and teacher attention. And although traditionally that has been a large part of the liberal arts education, it is by no means the only part, or (at least in my opinion) the most important.

Liberal Arts means art scattered around liberally, right? This one’s my favourite.

Liberal arts means art scattered around liberally, right? This one is my favourite piece on campus.

A more abstract art piece, where each point is placed in relation to others.

A more abstract art piece, where each point is placed in relation to others.

An example of one of the points

An example of one of the points

It’s really no surprise that so many students are confused as to the definition of liberal arts, because as a quick cursory Internet search will tell you, not everyone agrees on a set definition. Long ago, the Greeks “invented” the liberal arts education, based on topics that were worthy of study if you were a free person. Somewhere along the line, the trivium (study of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectics) and quadrivium (study of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) were formally defined as the main parts of a liberal arts education. Nowadays, chances are no matter where you get a liberal arts education, it’s not likely to include all of these subjects. Over time, it’s morphed into an approach to education, rather than just a list of seven subjects to be taught.

An old Greek person? Not quite. This is Henry Mudd, one of the co-founders of Mudd. As I was taking this picture, I was informed that you’re supposed to rub his nose for good luck before exams.

An old Greek person? Not quite. This is Henry Mudd, one of the co-founders of Mudd. As I was taking this picture, I was informed that you’re supposed to rub his nose for good luck before exams.

Freshman year, in our HSA 10 class, we spend the first few weeks talking about what a liberal arts education means, and discussing whether or not Mudd is in fact a liberal arts school. So, I’ll pull from one of the texts we read there. It’s a transcript of Robert Pippin’s speech to the University of Chicago incoming class in 2000.

According to Pippin, “biology and economics, just as much as literature and philosophy can be studied as a liberal art if studied in a certain way”. It’s not about what’s being taught so much as how the subject is being taught. If all we did were memorize chemical formulas, we wouldn’t be a liberal arts school. If we required that students take all of their classes in a single discipline, we wouldn’t be a liberal arts school.

Liberal arts: Psychology and Chemistry and Engineering and Computer Science and Literature and more!

Liberal arts: Psychology and Chemistry and Engineering and Computer Science and Literature and more!

So then what is a liberal arts school? Well, it’s a school that makes you think, as well as learn. Ideally, in a liberal arts school students learn how to think for themselves, how to “reflect critically on what you have heretofore just taken for granted” and not just learn the formulas, but also “how a mathematician and a scientist thinks”. It’s not just about taking classes in multiple subjects. It’s about how those subjects are taught.

Liberal arts: Interdisciplinary labs (aka the lab I worked in last summer)

Liberal arts: Interdisciplinary labs (aka the lab I worked in last summer)

And if we define liberal arts in this way, it becomes clearer that any major – whether it be Engineering or English – can be taught as a part of a liberal arts education. It’s not the subject that’s taught, but how it’s taught.

All liberal arts institutions need fountains, right?

All liberal arts institutions need fountains, right?

Hope this helps people who are trying to figure out exactly what a liberal arts education entails!

Caption: Really, you can’t capture a liberal arts education in a picture, so have an inspiring one reminiscent of a growing, expanding mind.

Really, you can’t capture a liberal arts education in a picture, so have an inspiring one reminiscent of a growing, expanding mind.