The Importance of a Liberal Arts Education

Life involves making choices and a liberal arts education prepares people to make life's choices from a broad base of information, thoughtfully, and responsibly. Such an education helps prepare us for the full range of activities in our lives; it helps us gain a sense of self and of self-direction; and it prepares us for a lifetime of learning in response to changes in ourselves and in the world.

 Primary characteristics of a liberal arts education are its breadth and its emphasis on multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives in problem solving. The problems in today's and tomorrow's worlds are increasingly complex, and to make appropriate choices we must be able to approach decisions from wide and multiple perspectives. We also must be able to analyze information and alternatives critically, often working collaboratively with others who may differ from us in background and experiences. We need to realize that the choices we make have consequences, and we must be prepared to stand by the consequences of the choices we make. No other form of education provides such characteristics and preparation for living.

Liberal arts preparation developed in part as a response to the need for an informed and responsible citizenry to maintain and carry forward the democratic processes. In addition to providing people with the skills to act responsibly, such an education instills in us the commitment to act responsibly, in all aspects of our lives: as wage-earners, family members, citizens, members of a community and of a society, and as full human beings. 

 A liberal arts education is the best preparation for the careers of the future, careers that are increasingly information-based and self-directed. In contrast to the lives of our parents or grandparents, we will change careers many times over the course of our lifetimes--into career paths that have not yet been conceived. We will need to learn new skills, new information, and new ways to process information--building on skills, knowledge, and attitudes we have developed in the past. We also need to be prepared for a lifetime of change and learning. A liberal arts education lays this foundation.

 Perhaps most important, a liberal arts education is based on helping people explore, articulate, and act upon their values. Questions of “Why, and why not?” are considered along with those of “How, where, and when?” Additionally, questions of “What if and suppose?” are encouraged, questions that lead to some of life's most important answers.

When I have summarized a liberal arts education recently, I have described it as looking--and encouraging students to look-- in four directions:

  • Looking forward into the future--into information, technology, complex problems requiring multiple perspectives for solutions, and careers unlike those we've known before.
  • Looking backward into the past--knowing that if we ignore the past we are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and knowing also that there are treasures of thought and knowledge in the past that can be brought forward to help us in the present and in the future.
  • Looking around--at a world that is increasingly international and multicultural, filled with people both like us and unlike us in exciting and challenging ways, and whose lives, though far away in miles, are inextricably linked with ours.
  • Looking within--and exploring, appreciating, and acting based on the people we are; helping us to "do as a part of our being" rather than to take our identities simply by reflex actions. 

We need to know who we are, what we value, and what choices follow from those values--and we need the skills and the sense of self to make those choices and to stand up for them as the best responses to complex and important issues. A liberal arts education, better than any other, prepares us for such a life.