What are Liberal Arts Colleges and Why You Might Want to Know?

  • An aid to design your own liberal arts core curriculum
  • College students and their dismal performance in history and civics

When US News and World Report ranks ‘liberal arts’ colleges, it lists such schools as Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, or Haverford. Nowhere, however, does it mention what the ‘liberal arts’ are. We’re also left in the dark about why a college might provide such a program, or why a student might seek entry into an institution, usually with a stiff price tag, that offers a liberal arts curriculum. A lot of confusion surrounds the liberal arts.  

Two key advocates of a “liberal arts” education, Howard and Mathew Greene—legends in the world of college placement consultants—describe liberal arts as a “broad-based education in one or more…fields [ranging from] English language and literature, or foreign languages [to] mathematics, biological sciences, and philosophy. The skills in critical reading, analysis, problem solving, close reading, revised writing… that students develop with a liberal arts education become their ingrained talents for the rest of their lives.” (p. 21, The Public Ivies) The Greene’s description of “liberal arts” is helpful, though it still leaves a major question unanswered: how do you get a liberal arts education?

A large, informative guide (1084 pages) from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) aptly named, Choosing the Right College 2010-2011, advocates getting a liberal arts education by attending a college that has a ‘core curriculum.’ A core curriculum requires students take specific classes, usually in the classics, philosophy, religious studies, political studies, English, and history. For example, St. John’s College, a ‘liberal arts’ college with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an extreme example of a liberal arts school. Its core curriculum is the Great Books (masterpieces of Western thought that include Shakespeare, Thucydides, Pascal, etc.). So when a student takes calculus, rather than using some textbook, she’ll read the writings of Newton and Leibnitz, the co-inventors of calculus. What happens if the school you plan to attend doesn’t have a core curriculum? Don’t worry, Choosing the Right College reviews the course offerings of 134 institutions, virtually all the highly selective schools--along with a few surprises, and suggests specific courses to fulfill your own, makeshift, core curriculum.

One good reason students might benefit from a core curriculum composed of liberal arts courses: how many 17 or 18 year olds really know what courses they should select to fill in their knowledge gaps?  One subject, for example, that many students avoid when they enter college is history; and the consequences of this avoidance are proving disturbing. Riding on the answer is whether higher education is preparing students for lives as informed and engaged citizens. According to the results of a report issued by ISI, a report based upon a set of tests over US history and civics taken by a statistically significant number of entering college freshman and graduating seniors, over 75% of college seniors “could not identify that the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western Hemisphere.” In such schools as the University of California, Berkeley; Cornell; Brown; Duke; Yale; and Johns Hopkins, students know less about American civics and history as graduates, than they did when they entered. You may read about this survey, including some of the questions from the test, and its results, at www.americancivicliteracy.org.

A number of parents worry how will their kids make a living once they leave college?  Liberal arts seems more a rich man’s education. However, gaining a liberal arts education does not necessarily preclude studying engineering or pre-medicine.  Lots of schools, both public and private, offer liberal arts. UCLA, with its honors program, http://www.ugeducation.ucla.edu/honors/hchome.html, addresses the skills and interdisciplinary study of a solid liberal arts program. Yale, through its Directed Study Program, headed up by Anthony Kronman, the former Dean of the Yale Law School, is a superb liberal arts program (though possibly a bit too rigorous if attempted along with an engineering focus). I know a number of people who majored in English (and took a solid load of ‘liberal arts’ courses) as pre-meds, and went on to become doctors. Liberal Arts acknowledges that none of us leaves college as finished products. Rather, it teaches a student how to learn. That’s something all of us will need to do the rest of our lives. So why not start the process in college?

일반교양 단과대학이란?   아는 것이 좋은가?

  • 여러분이 짜는 교과과정을 위하여
  • 대학생들의 역사와 정치과목의 기막힌 성적

US News and World Report에서 ‘일반교양 단과대학’ 등급을 매길 때 Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, Haverford 대학들이 있다.  그러나, ‘일반교양 단과대학’이 어떤 대학들인지는 언급하고 있지 않다.  독자들도 이 대학들이 어떤 독특한 프로그램을 제공하는지? 왜 학생들은 경직된 일반교양 교과과정의 학교에 들어가려 하는지?  이 대학들에 대하여 혼란스럽다.

‘일반교양’교육의 주창자들이며, 대학상담의 신화적 존재인 Howard and Mathew Greene은 이 교육을 ‘English language and literature, foreign language, mathematics, biological sciences, philosophy중에서 한 두 분야를 폭넓게 공부’한다고 설명한다.  이 교육에서 학생들이 비판적인 읽기, 분석, 문제해결, 세밀한 읽기, 글 수정 등 의 실력을 쌓으면, 평생 숙달된 재능을 가지게 된다고 한다(The Public Ivies). Greene의 설명은 유용하나 의문점은 학생들이 어떻게 그러한 교육을 받을 수 있는가? 이다.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute(ISI)의 방대한 자료 책(1084페이지)인 Choosing the Right College 2010-2011 에서는 ‘핵심 교과과정’을 취하는 대학에서 이러한 일반교양 교육을 받을 수 있다고 주장한다.  이러한 교과과정을 classics, philosophy, religious studies, political studies, English, history의 과목들을 선택하는 것이다.  예를 들면, 일반교양 대학인 St. John’s College은 Annapolis, Maryland, Santa Fe에 캠퍼스가 있는 전형적인 일반교양 대학이다.  이 대학의 핵심 교과과정은 Great Books(Shakespeare, Thucydides, Pascal의 저서를 포함)이다.  그래서 학생이 calculus를 택한다면, 교재대신에 calculus의 공동 창안자인 Newton, Leibnitz의 글을 읽는다.  만약 여러분이 택한 대학에 핵심 교과과정이 없어도 걱정할 필요는 없다.   Choosing the Right College를 살펴 보면, 134개의 대학들-대부분이 명문대이지만, 그 밖의 대학들에서도 여러분이 짜 맞출 수 있는 핵심 교과과정을 제공하고 있다. 

이런 핵심 교과과정의 장점은 일반교양 과목들이 있다는 점이다.  얼마나 많은17-18세의 학생들이 지식을 쌓기 위해 무엇을 선택해야 하는지 알까?  예를 들면, 많은 학생들이 꺼리는 과목이 역사과목이다.  이러한 회피는 고등교육을 받은 학생들이 지식이 풍부한 시민으로서 사회일원으로 참여해야할 때 그 자질에 문제를 가져온다.  ISI에서 실시한 US History, civic 시험에서 75%의 대학 졸업반 학생들이 Monroe Doctrine의 목적을 알지 못했다.  시험 대상 대학들은 UC Berkeley, Cornell, Brown, Duke, Yale, Johns Hopkins 등 이었다(www.americancivicliteracy.org 참고).

한편, 학부모들은 자녀가 대학 졸업 후 어떻게 살아갈 것인가를 걱정한다.  그런 면에서 일반교양 교육은 사치스러운 것 같다.  그러나, 일반교양 공부를 한다고 해서 engineering, pre-medicine 공부를 못하는 것은 아니다.  공립, 사립의 많은 대학들이 일반 교양과목들을 제공하고 있다.  UCLA의 honors program에서도 훌륭한 학문 제휴 프로그램을 갖고 있다.  Yale대학에서는 전법과대학장인 Anthony Kronman이 이끄는 프로그램인 Directed Study (engineering을 전공하면서 병행은 어려움)는 탁월한 일반교양 과정이다.  내 주변에는 pre-med를 하면서 영문학을 전공한 의사들이 꽤 있다.  일반교양 과목들은 대학교육을 완전 상품으로 보지 않는다.  오히려 공부를 하는 방법을 가르쳐 준다.  이것은 평생을 살아가면서 필요한 것이다.  이제 대학의 절차를 시작할 때이다.