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.