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On Liberal Arts

with 10 comments

If it seems to you that I keep talking about my experience with the US Higher Education system, you will not be wrong. Past few posts have mostly been a retrospective look into my collegiate years in the United States in an effort to abstract out lessons that I have learned that could be valuable to international students who are interested in coming to the United States. As I have mentioned before, liberal arts education was a completely foreign concept to me when I was first applying to colleges in the United States. In this post, I will attempt to shed some more light on what it means to get a liberal arts education based on my own meandering experience.

A quick search for the term liberal arts education and you come across many links that explain the approach in great detail highlighting not only the characteristics of the approach but also how they can be beneficial to a student. Reading through these articles, you will quickly realize the power of this approach. The motivation behind developing a liberal arts approach to education stems from the fact that our surroundings are in a constant state of change. As human beings, we need to consistently adapt to new scenarios to ensure our survival and further our development as a generation of well rounded professionals. Therefore, the idea that someone should focus on a particular area of study and not even seek to an introduction to other disciplines seems short sighted. Liberal arts education centers around the idea of creating an intellectual and educational environment that fosters curiosity and exploration across different sects. It does not mean that as a student attending a liberal arts institution, you will not be able to concentrate on a particular field of study. I went to a liberal arts institution and spent most of my time studying Mathematics & Computer Science. To be honest, students who are passionate about a field and want to focus a good portion of their energy in delving deeper into the concepts are encouraged to do so through a plethora of independent studies & summer research opportunities.

I knew I wanted to study computer science and mathematics has always captured my interest so my major was pretty much decided. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I was initially looking into engineering programs. However, spending a semester in a liberal arts institution helped me understand the benefits of exploring areas such as philosophy, political science & economics. As the articles above illustrate, a liberal arts curriculum is designed to help you develop a holistic understanding of the world around you. As an example, taking classes across disciplines enables you to develop a great product with algorithms based on sound fundamentals of mathematics and implement it using the new computer language that you learnt in class. Introduction to economics you took last semester gives you the ability to come up with a good pricing strategy & the principles that you will learn in psych & the communication classes next semester will serve as a foundation for a rudimentary marketing strategy to increase your user base giving your product greater visibility in the market. This example might be oversimplified but it illustrates how you can connect the information you acquire across several disciplines in unique and meaningful ways.

Liberal arts education is a perfect vehicle to instill in us the idea of attacking a problem from different angles. An example that illustrates this core principle is an essay that I had to write for my application to Bennington College. It has been seven years so the details are a bit fuzzy but the exercise was to pick an object in the house and describe it from the vantage point of a physicist, a carpenter & I forget the third. At that point, I did not understand the purpose and inherent value of the question because I was still unclear on what liberal arts education is. However, looking back, I realize that exercise was a perfect way to introduce to the prospective students exactly how liberal arts institutions such as Bennington encourage you to analyze the same problem by looking at it from different perspectives. Considering the fact that the success of iPod & Nintendo Wii can be attributed more to a superb user experience brought about re-thinking how users use their product, you can see how a liberal arts background breeds the fundamental skills required for success.

The intention is not to teach the student how to do one particular thing well. Instead, the motivation is to help students develop the ability to become an independent learner. This approach is useful because it prepares us with the knowledge necessary to adapt to the changes that are constantly taking place around us. It also puts the responsibility on the student and makes for a much more independent and engaging educational experience. This is not just limited to picking your classes and majors but includes exploring specialized areas within the major  or combining the fundamentals of different fields in developing a research project or an independent study. The fact that liberal arts school allow you to carve out a personalized interdisciplinary college experience is truly awesome.

Liberal arts education is becoming increasingly important as the world becomes more and more interconnected. With the advancement in telecommunications and other technologies that bring the world to our fingrtips, a solid understanding of different cultures and the awareness of the differences in perspectives is integral to maintain good relationships with our fellow global citizens. Powered by the breadth of knowledge and an uncanny ability to research and learn new things, a professional with a liberal arts background is equipped with all the tools necessary to excel in such an environment. The smaller classes with a focus on discussions over monotonous lectures along with numerous extra-curricular activities provide students with a number of avenues to hone their intellectual and interpersonal skills. The community driven activities are also a great way to help the students understand how a little effort on their part can help the communities that they are part of in a meaningful way.

I hope that this post has been helpful in explaining what liberal arts education is. If you do not fully grasp the concept still, that’s okay. It is one of those things that is better understood when experienced first hand. I may have missed a few details in the post so if there are anything you feel I should include, please let me know through the comments and I will make necessary updates.

UPDATE: I have to thank the author of a wonderful blog on intercultural household for encouraging me to write on this topic.

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Written by tundal45

November 18, 2009 at 1:16 pm

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10 Responses

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  1. Excellent, comprehensive perspective on the liberal arts educational concept, my man! Why don’t you try and get some of these published as op-eds? I think you are certainly on to something here.

    Mind if I RP in Facebook so more people can see?

    Sal

    November 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    • Thank you very much. I have no problems extending this post into an op-ed. You can repost wherever you see fit. I wrote this so that it can be helpful to those who are trying to understand it.

      tundal45

      November 18, 2009 at 8:10 pm

  2. See, I told you so!! :)

    americanepali

    November 18, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    • I have to give a shout out to you on nudging me to write about this. I am sorry I forgot to give an in blog shout out earlier. I will fix that as soon as I get a chance. :-)

      tundal45

      November 18, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  3. Your writing is excellent and you made me want to read the posting from beginning to end. I’m a business owner with years of experience managing people in businesses large and small and I’ve hired hundreds of people in the last 25 years. Contrary to what you’ve written here, I’ve found recent liberal arts graduates to be “jacks of all trades and masters of none.” Hiring someone without a focused education in the area I’m seeking has been a disservice to both the individual and the business because they don’t have the tools to be highly successful.

    What you describe as the ability to look at a problem from several different angles often translates into analysis paralysis…the inability to evaluate a situation, weigh the options, and make a recommendation/decision.

    I’m certainly not advocating the elimination of liberal arts education. There are several professions that are well served by a liberal arts education. What I am saying is that a liberal arts education will not provide the best tools for success in many professions.

    HR Pro

    November 19, 2009 at 2:39 am

    • @HR Pro – It is really good to hear from someone who has experience in hiring people and has seen the realities. I agree that just attending a liberal arts school will not automatically instill the qualities that I describe above. I think the success or failure with a liberal arts degree is heavily dependent on how much effort that person put into their education. You are also right in that there are certain professions where a liberal arts degree is not going to get you anywhere.

      I also want to point out that I do not think vocationally trained people cannot be successful in todays market either. Anyone who is willing and able to adapt to the changing environments and learn quickly will be successful in todays world. It’s just that I feel a serious and engaged liberal arts student has all the tools at their disposal to be better prepared for changing circumstances. I also like the fact that you bring up analysis paralysis. It can be difficult for a lot of individuals to hit the ground running sometimes because they have a breadth of knowledge but the job at hand requires a certain depth that liberal arts degree does not teach you. However, what it teaches you is how to learn on your own during such times.

      I work in the technology sector and being a programmer with liberal arts degree is tough because I did not take any courses on databases or operating systems or networks. It was really difficult in the beginning to get started. However, I have reached the point where I feel I am comfortable enough to play around with new things thrown at me. What is also useful, and I did not elaborate this enough on my post, is that I feel liberal arts fosters the curiosity & exploration and really develops one’s ability to solve problems and think critically. Again, a lot of the benefits of liberal arts education can be had if the person is independent enough to follow their intellectual curiosity and desire to explore. It’s just that its easier when you have a system that encourages you to do that rather than hacking a similar path in a more rigid educational setting.

      I really appreciate you reading the post fully and taking time to bring this up. Liberal arts education is certainly not for everyone and, as you have pointed out, not for everything. Thank you again for your kind words. I am glad you like my writing :-).

      tundal45

      November 19, 2009 at 3:14 am

      • Tundal45-it is a pleasure to converse with a mature and intelligent individual. I wish I had several applicants like you to fill every job…Best of luck in your career and in life.

        HR Pro

        November 19, 2009 at 3:36 am

      • I am working on (mostly gathering thoughts at this stage) a post about modern workspaces and what I think are key items that an employer should consider implementing in their workspaces. Given that I only started working a few years ago, I don’t have much experience on the topic so I am going to have to rely you to keep me honest.

        tundal45

        November 19, 2009 at 9:59 am

  4. Buddy,

    I don’t know if anyone had told you this, but I think you need to change the design of your blog. I followed you from another blog where you comment once in a while and I found you to be quite intelligent and even liked your writing style. But I can’t read a single post over here- reason I think is your boring design and the choice of font. This is a part of a communication skill as well. You need to change it for the better.

    nepalidawg

    February 22, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    • @nepalidawg – I understand what you are saying. However, given that I have a wordpress hosted account for now, there is very little I can do in terms of font-size & theme. Among the available themes, this is the one that I found that was both visually pleasing & had a decent font-size to read. Hopefully, I will be able to build my own website in a few months where I can have my own customized blog. I appreciate your feedback.

      tundal45

      February 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm


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