Image of archaeology students moving an artifact.

The value of a liberal arts and science education has been much in the public discourse these last few years. Political and economic forces—some might say agendas—have shaped that discourse, as they have for at least the last century, particularly in the United States. But before assuming a shared understanding of what constitutes liberal education, perhaps we should pose that as an essential question.

In the past, Center for Teaching workshops have done just that, inviting participants to jot down their own definitions of liberal education. And while the variety of answers can be fascinating, they almost always revolve around three notions that together describe an educated person as one who can write well, speak convincingly, and think critically.

The word “liberal” originated from the Latin term that referred to things that were “suitable for a free man.” According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, a liberal education “fosters a well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward lifelong learning, and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions.” Now beginning its second century, the AAC&U is comprised of more than 1,300 institutions of higher education. Its academic journals, monographs, and position papers have shaped our understanding of high-impact educational practices, general education curricula, and the fundamental learning outcomes necessary to “empower individuals and prepare them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.”

Much of that complexity and change is the result of the massive amounts of information now available through the Internet. The Internet may have democratized access to information, but a warehouse of data alone cannot educate. A liberal education helps students contextualize and assess the massive amounts of information they experience, and to explore, analyze, and synthesize it by leveraging perspectives and strategies that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. In the process, they may discover new information, but even more, they gain new understanding—knowledge.

For example, The University of Iowa interdisciplinary “Big Ideas” course People and the Environment challenges students to explicitly grapple with the question, “What is the relationship of data (information) to knowledge?” Like other General Education courses, this course is grounded in the principles of liberal education and “provides broad exposure to multiple disciplines and forms the basis for developing essential intellectual, civic, and practical capacities.”(AAC&U, 2014)  In other words, by bridging traditional disciplinary boundaries, these courses seek to broaden students’ intellectual experience not only by providing content but also by training the mind to think. 

In his 2015 book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, foreign affairs journalist Fareed Zakaria offers a compelling case for sustaining American liberal education, and an explanation of why—in the words of one reviewer—the flight from liberal education “is leaving us impoverished.” Zakaria points out the irony that unlike many people today, the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed science as “the path to abstract knowledge,” while it was the humanities—specifically history and the languages—that were seen to provide an entrée to the practical worlds of politics, law, commerce, and the military. 

Perhaps that perspective has survived the ages, as today more and more prominent civic and corporate leaders extol the value of liberal education—including, of course, the arts and humanities. Like others who think deeply about the role of higher education, Zakaria argues that the purpose of liberal education is not job training; rather, a good liberal education—one that is structured to challenge students to explore subjects broadly and meet high standards—provides precisely the kind of education required of engineers and artists, small business entrepreneurs and corporate attorneys, surgeons and history teachers. It offers an opportunity to gain the knowledge and the skills that nurture the “intellectual resilience” necessary to live in and contribute to this century’s global universe. 

Thanks to Assistant Professor of Biology Andrew Forbes for recommending In Defense of Liberal Education (Zakaria, 2015). The book is available for checkout at the Center for Teaching lending library, 2070 UCC.

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What Is a 21st Century Liberal Education? (2014). Retrieved February 03, 2016, from

Zakaria, F. (2015). In defense of a liberal education (First edition). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company