A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education presented some of the history of how the liberal arts has declined since the 1970s, and how a different philosophy for higher education–that its primary purpose is to help graduates get good jobs–arose in its place. From my perspective, there is a great misunderstanding about what a “liberal education” actually is. In my experience, when I talk to most families about what they want from an education, they describe the broad, general exploration of many subjects–as well as the desire that their kids be able to get a job upon graduation. So let’s take a look at some definitions.
What Is a “Liberal Arts” Education?
The “liberal” in “liberal arts” comes from the word “liberty.” Do not confuse this word with its political connotation. The idea of a liberal arts curriculum is to “free the mind” and unbind it from ignorance.
Liberal arts is the traditional higher education curriculum in the US. Nearly every university offers a “Bachelor of Arts” degree that requires a broad introduction to a variety of disciplines. Unlike in other countries, the “general education” requirements help ensure that Americans are not specialists, but rather have a wide acquaintance with many disciplines.
Liberal arts majors include the sciences: chemistry, biology, physics, and more. Again, don’t be fooled by the nomenclature: liberal arts colleges often have outstanding science departments, and a few even offer engineering.
The College of Liberal Arts (or Arts & Sciences) is undergraduate unit of a university. In the United States, we talk about going to “college” after high school, because college is the traditional undergraduate destination—whether or not that destination is part of a university. In fact, the first college established in the US remains a college: the College of William and Mary.
What Is a Liberal Arts College (LAC)?
Think of an LAC as a “college of arts and sciences” at a university that is removed from a broader institution and created as a stand-alone school. It has exactly the same sort of undergraduate curriculum that exists at a university, but the LAC is completely separated from graduate programs.
An LAC offers only undergraduate degrees. Most offer the BA, but some might offer other degrees, including a BS, BM, or even a BBA.
Because it is an entirely undergraduate institution, there are no graduate students in an LAC. Professors teach all classes, even discussion sections and laboratories, because there are no graduate programs at an LAC.
Because they are generally smaller, LACs also offer smaller class sizes than those generally found at larger universities. Thus it is often easier to make personal connections in the classroom, both with professors and peers.