What Exactly IS a Liberal Arts Education?

What Exactly IS a Liberal Arts Education?

By John Potter and Steve Roushakes      

We describe The New School as a unique liberal arts education, but I sometimes wonder how people interpret the term “liberal arts” and subsequently envision our school. The term certainly does not mean an art-focused education, and we are not, then, an art school (though it’s true we have a reputation for excellence in the fine and performing arts). Rather, the liberal arts comprise a variety of disciplines that, together, form a foundation for higher learning. For us, it’s about creating a whole, thoughtful person with an agile mind. Let’s take a closer look.

In the original sense, in classical antiquity, the liberal arts were those disciplines one studied to become a freethinking, “liberated” individual who is capable of independently responding to the world, and therefore fit for participation in civic life. Although the discipline make up of the liberal arts has changed over time – from classical antiquity, through the medieval and renaissance periods, to today – the term has always signified a broad, multidisciplinary basis of knowledge. Mathematics, science, art, and language are, together, the common core of the liberal arts.

Today, the term liberal arts is most commonly used to describe undergraduate college curriculums that focus on fundamental skills of critical thought and informed expression through the study of the sciences, the arts, foreign language, and humanities. Liberal arts colleges also tend to have small classes and a faculty dedicated to teaching first, rather than research and publishing.

Socrates
Socrates: an icon in the Pre-Dawn of Liberal Arts

It’s with this liberal arts college model in mind – small classes, dedicated faculty, a broad curriculum encompassing mathematics, science, art, foreign language, and the humanities – that we like to call our school a unique liberal arts education.

It’s the approach to the disciplines that makes the distinction; in a liberal arts education, the skills and competencies of each discipline are studied on their own terms, but they are treated as part of a larger goal of developing a well-educated individual. This difference is evident in virtually every aspect of our curriculum.

In our view, a liberal arts education teaches a person how to think critically, how to analyze, synthesize, rearrange and integrate ideas and priorities. We feel that approaching liberal arts the way we do initiates the process of freeing a student’s mind to begin to realize its fullest potential. We feel strongly that our curriculum gives our students a very strong start in transitioning to college, particularly if it is a college focusing on the liberal arts.

Constantly encouraging students to think and learn across disciplines is the core of what we do. Encouraging critical thinking, independent thinking, and applying reason through dialogue provides students with a range of skills that ultimately should be the foundation of all professions — particularly in a complex and rapidly-changing world.