A College Considers Taking the ‘Liberal’ Out of ‘Liberal Education’

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Published by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Debate about the word "liberal" and its role in academe is a familiar story for Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

"There is that prevailing national rhetoric that presumes that college and university campuses are bastions of liberalism," Pasquerella said. "But when we go back to the historic meaning of liberal education in the sense of the stoics, who argued that we should liberate the mind from past dispositions, it becomes clearer."

At least two of the University of Colorado’s peer institutions in the Association of American Universities mention "liberal arts" in their mission statements. Indiana University points to its "grounding in the liberal arts and sciences." Michigan State University’s statement refers to its "liberal arts foundation."

For all the soaring rhetoric used to describe it, there’s some confusion about what, exactly, a "liberal" or "liberal arts" education means. David Strauss, a principal at the higher-education consulting firm Art & Science Group, said some people define liberal-arts education in terms of the disciplines it encompasses — humanities, arts and social and natural sciences. Others, he said, see "liberal arts" as an approach to learning any type of subject matter.

"Part of the reason that the debate rages," Strauss said, "is because nobody really agrees on what the definition is."

Strauss says he’s worked with members of institutions’ governing boards who identify themselves as politically conservative and are not comfortable associating with what they perceive to be a liberal-leaning university. Instead, Strauss said, they’d prefer to strike "liberal" from "liberal education," just as the University of Colorado proposed.

Gerald R. Greenberg, an associate professor of linguistics at Syracuse University, has pointed out that those who confuse "liberal" in its education sense with the political meaning have got it all wrong. In an essay published in The Washington Post, Greenberg writes that" the liberal in liberal arts and liberal education does not stand in contrast to conservative. Rather, it derives from the Latin liberalis, associated with the meaning of freedom. Liberal, not as opposed to conservative, but as free, in contrast to imprisoned, subjugated or incarcerated."

Others worry that a focus on the liberal arts devalues more professionally oriented fields.

"If we speak about a liberal education, then what do we say about the medical school, law school, engineering school, that aren’t necessarily grounded in the liberal education?" Pasquerella said.

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