Monday, February 14, 2011

Whaddaya mean, "liberal arts"?

Last week I asked my MATH 179 students to reflect on what "liberal arts" meant to them. They were to write an ungraded page or two about what they thought it is that distinguishes a liberal arts institution from one of a different sort. Their responses to this exercise were uniformly astute. They've got a good grasp of what a liberal arts education entails already, so my goal for the next of the semester need not be so much to introduce them to this educational philosophy so much as it will be to help them investigate its subtleties and implications.

Many focused on the relatively intimate learning environment at liberal arts colleges, bolstered by their smallness: "Because of the small student-teacher ratio, students are closer to their professors and receive personal attention" and "I like the fact that it [UNCA] is a small campus, the students and teachers are very nice, and there are classes here that you probably would not find anywhere else," in contradistinction to "UNCW [UNC Wilmington, where] most of the lecture classes were very large. I had several hundred people in my Biology class and also in my Algebra class."

Some commented on the liberal arts curriculum, focusing on the curriculum's breadth as well as disciplinary depth ("Usually liberal arts colleges have more core classes than other colleges. I think this is because the college wants us to have a broader view of horizons rather than focus on the one thing that we like") and on the ways in which the curricular offerings are tied together ("Liberal arts colleges tend to look at education holistically, meaning the curriculum is usually intertwined and well-constructed relating certain areas of study") . They acknowledged that tackling this curriculum is not always easy, but should ultimately be rewarding: "Due to liberal arts requirements one must go outside of their comfort zone and take classes in topics that they are not the best at or comfortable with. Although can be cumbersome as a student at times it helps integrate all areas of study to further the student's knowledge in general."

What are the rewards? Employability, one would hope: "When I graduate I think all those requirements [clusters, writing intensives, etc.] will make me a more rounded person and make me look better to an employer" and "...a degree from a liberal arts school is better to find a job that is not specific, because it shows you have skills in many areas." There's also something to be said for the recognition of the "human" in human scholarly endeavors: "The liberal arts environment at the school has had a major impact on the way I am taught and how I learn here at the University of North Carolina Asheville. [...For example, the Newton v. Leibniz project in Calc I] seemed so absurd but it really helped me realize that the topics we were being taught and the rules that we were learning were not just things that appeared out of thin air. Every subject, every theory, and every idea has a back story, a history, a time, a place, and a brilliant mind who thought it up."

Several students expressed (sometimes extreme) satisfaction at attending a liberals university (a few have spent at least a term in a non-liberal arts environment). Some even expressed concern for their peers elsewhere: "I see a liberal arts education to be very important because I have noticed a terrifying trend that not many of my peers that attend non-liberal arts universities are very secluded and "protected" from the world and the culture in which they live."

So far they know what they're talking about.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Wow, very interesting. I know it can be hard to look past all of the extracurricular requirements. It's nice to know that SOMEDAY we will reap the benefits. As you said, we can only hope that we will see immediate results; but most likely we will live a more responsible life determined by our experiences here.