Carleton Faculty Reflect on the Meaning of the Liberal Arts

Cliff Clark, Professor of History

What is a liberal arts education? To my mind it is an education in a range of disciplines that allows the individual to become a global citizen and a problem-solver. Unlike many universities where students must declare their major before entering and specialize in that major, a liberal arts education introduces students to a range of disciplines that can later be used to understand issues and problems.

Take, for example, the study of Populism, the late-nineteenth century farmers’ movement that called for government regulation of banks, railroads, and the money supply. Historians who study Populism are aided immensely if they have taken introductory economics courses and they can view the farmers’ movement as part of a debate over the regulation of the U.S. economy — a debate that continues today. Similarly, one Carleton history graduate, who has had a long a long and distinguished career as Director of Research at Colonial Williamsburg, got his early break when working on historical archeology because he had taken a drawing class at Carleton and was able to draw what the destroyed buildings he had excavated might have looked like. This versatility is key to a liberal arts education.

At their simplest, the liberal arts are just a way of organizing human knowledge into manageable pieces: divisions (like natural sciences, social sciences and humanities) and departments (like history, chemistry or economics) and interdisciplinary programs (women’s and gender studies or political economy). But much more significantly, the liberal arts offer a profound approach to learning and even to life.

For much of history and in most of the world today, higher education is based on a philosophy that emphasizes deep but potentially narrow learning. Undergraduates are typically educated in a single subject or discipline with the goal of training them to be experts in that area.

The liberal arts model is based on a different philosophy, emphasizing breadth over depth. While students study a major subject, they are encouraged, and in some cases required, to take half or more of their coursework outside their major discipline.

The educational philosophy that animates the liberal arts is grounded in the belief that not only are there many ways of viewing the world, but that each lens is worthy of consideration. At their best, the liberal arts provide undergraduates the opportunity to explore and “try on” different understandings of the world. The liberal arts offer the chance to examine how a philosopher explores the human condition compared to an anthropologist or an historian or an artist or a biologist.

In addition to broadening our intellectual horizons, a serious and thoughtful exploration across the liberal arts makes us better students of our own discipline, as knowledge of other fields informs and deepens the worldview formed by our own disciplinary perspective. And as we move beyond the purely academic, a liberal arts education ideally makes us better able to consider, understand, and be moved by perspectives and visions that differ from our own, be they those of a neighbor or another person who may be geographically or chronologically distant from us.

Kathleen Galotti, Professor of Cognitive Science

Because I’m a cognitive developmental psychologist, I think about the role of a liberal arts education in terms of cognitive processes. Cognitive psychologists speak of two types of thinking processes — System 1 and System 2. System 1 processes are those that operate automatically or at least with very little effort, and they don’t seem to be under our voluntary control. Things like reading a word on a page or driving a car (if you’re an experienced driver) on a sunny day with no traffic are two examples. System 2 processes are effortful, voluntarily directed, and seem to require mental energy to carry out. Figuring out sales tax on a purchase in your head, writing an insightful and coherent paper, or making an analytical decision are some examples of System 2 in operation.

A liberal arts education, I believe, “liberates” us from the exclusive use of System 1 thinking. It teaches us skills, approaches, and values that give us another option. If we choose, and if we put those skills, approaches, and values into practice, we might make better decisions, spot bad arguments, and resist insidious pressures on us to take or avoid certain actions. We might be more thoughtful and more open-minded, more able to put ourselves in someone else’s perspective, more willing to suspend our initial “gut” reactions and to think an argument through.

System 1 processes feel “natural” to use — in fact, so natural that sometimes we don’t even recognize that they are being used. System 2 processes, in contrast, need to be explicitly taught, learned, and practiced. That’s what I think liberal arts colleges are mainly about — teaching, learning, and practicing higher order thinking skills like critical thinking, appreciation, analysis of arguments, and synthesis of ideas across disciplines, to name just a few. This doesn’t mean that System 1 is bad, or that only System 2 thinking should ever be used. Indeed, there are many occasions when it’s good to listen to our overall intuitions and not overthink a situation. But without a well developed System 2, we never have that choice.

Fred Hagstrom, Professor of Art

One of the community colleges in our state teaches courses in blackjack dealing. Who can blame the general public for confusion on what a college degree represents when a “college education” can be had from such a range of educational philosophies; from directly applied training, to research Universities, to the great books, to the liberal arts? Any job is worth doing well, and no job is really beneath an intelligent and thoughtful person.

So the point is not that blackjack dealing or any other job is a demeaning waste of time. But if an educational opportunity is devoted to a narrow range of study, or to mere training, then something is indeed lost or wasted. The purpose of a liberal education is to deepen the habit of a kind of learning that can enrich a life. Looking beyond an easy connection to utility or direct application, and avoiding a too narrow specialization are important ways to foster the kind of curiosity and imagination that will be sustaining in any number of life situations.