Liberal Education over last 200 years – 2500 words 2.1 degree level

What have been the greatest achievements of a liberal education in the last two centuries?



The term liberal education refers to an educational approach to learning which helps to prepare individuals tackled diversity, complex situations and change (Barker, 1978). This approach to learning has been touted for its ability to give students a broad knowledge about the wider world they live in, than just the study they seek to earn a qualification in (Woodgate, 1975). A liberal education curriculum would enable students to gain knowledge of society, culture and science. In the US, liberal education has gained grounds over the decades making it possible for students to switch from one academic discipline to the other with relative ease. This form of education helps to develop a culture of social responsibility in students as it seeks to ensure that they are able to relate to different members of society, and be good and smart citizens (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970). This is because students who receive a liberal education gain practical skills that help them to be able to easily analyse situations and make smart decisions when faced with situations in real life. The more conservative approach to education mainly focused on the core subject arguably fails to provide students with the skills which they required to excel in other areas of social life (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970). As such, this approach to learning only prepares students to be able to solve problems that have to do with the core subject and nothing else when it comes to other aspects of life. This essay will seek to analyse the achievements that have been made by liberal education over the last two centuries. In order to accurately evaluate these achievements, this analysis will briefly examine the history of liberal education and proceed to discuss its advantages and disadvantages.


History of Liberal Education

Liberal education can be traced back to ancient Greece, and over the past few centuries, it has developed a central role in modern education in Western countries. Liberal education was first advocated by Plato (429-347 BC), the Greek philosopher and then later transformed into a comprehensive system (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970). Today, liberal education still makes up the basis of higher education is most colleges and universities across the world, and not just in the West. In “The Republic,” Plato articulated that the best approach to learning had to begin with physical training at a gymnasium which would be followed  by courses in geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music before taking on philosophy (Armytage, 1970). By this approach, Plato meant it was good to learn a bit of every other subject before focusing on philosophy which was the core subject at the time. He believed that education was a tool through which culture could be gathered and not just a way of gathering random information. This approach is well reflected in today’s approach to learning in the higher education curriculum (Barker, 1978). Today, in many countries and at some universities, especially in the USA, before a student graduates in an academic discipline such as economics, a student can take other courses in management, foreign languages, sports and law as ‘minor’ subjects. Consequently, the economics graduate from a liberal college has an idea on other fields of learning; in theory, at least.


After the Greeks, the Romans drew from the Greek approach to learning and developed and, arguably, improved on it. This was later handed down to Christian writers like St Augustine who was a teacher of the liberal art of rhetoric of his time (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970). The first universities were founded between 1100 and 1200 AD (Armytage, 1970). At this time, learners were treated to a curriculum based on the Ancient Greek approach. Students were expected to learn the seven liberal arts of grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, dialectic (or logic), and music. Right from these early days, there was an emphasis on ensuring that students did not focus all their attention only on the core subjects (Honderick, 1995). In the medieval era, students at universities – (a tiny number of privileged and religious men, of course) – were expected to take the trivium: a group of three liberal arts subjects, after which they took the quadrivium which were the final four subjects (Armytage, 1970). The university system continued to develop in Europe and this was spread around the world with the British and other empires the spread of mass education and universal suffrage. This was how the concept of liberal education was transmitted and how it continued to evolve into what exists, in some form, in most universities around the world today (Michaels, 2008).


The evolution of higher education reached a turning point in the 1800s after the system received much criticism from the scholarly community. An 1828 Yale Report sponsored by the then President of Yale University, Jeremiah Day, stressed the need to revise the prevailing approach to learning (Honderick, 1995). The world was witnessing new discoveries driven by science and technology that led to the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and later elsewhere. The Yale Report called for a broader approach to learning. By the middle of that century, most American universities had copied the German system of research universities that focused on special topics (Honderick, 1995). This approach to learning made it possible for students to gain deeper knowledge about a specific topic and created a platform for scholars to undertake meaningful research which could lead to discoveries (Barker, 1978). This revolution led to a decline in the number of traditional liberal arts colleges across the US.


The Point of Liberal Education

Not all college curricula are the same. Liberal education has made it possible for students to be able to easily make sense out of complex issues over the last few decades (Barker, 1978). This arguably gives them a more analytical mind that helps to upgrade the students’ ability to resolve problems in the ‘real world’. Such education helps to make students proactive rather than reactive (Woodgate, 1975). As such, these students seek to explore the world around them and aim to to discover the answers to unresolved mysteries, rather than sit and wait till they are asked to do so. In addition to the above, liberal education opens the minds of learners making it easier for them to easily accommodate new ideas and interact with new people in their quest to gain knowledge (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970). We live in a globalised world where people from different cultures travel to different locations across the globe to achieve different goals. As such, it is important to learn how to interact with different people and understand their culture. The old Latin quote which states that, ‘Non scholae sed vitae discimus’ (we learn not for school but for life), was base on the Roman ideology of liberal education which made it possible for students to gain knowledge on diverse subjects while pursuing their major interest. Liberal education comes along with this advantage, and students are able to learn about many things other than their major subject while in school (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970).  This extra knowledge sometimes proves to give an edge to these students over those who focused just on their core subject (Barker, 1978). For instance, a journalism student who minored in marketing would have an edge over a student who focused just on marketing when it comes to picking a marketing manager for a media business.


Liberal education programmes are common in modern universities in the UK, Europe and US. These programmes are designed to suit the needs of students and help to liberate their mentality (Curtis & Boultwood, 1970). But many students specialise too, rather that choose this kind of education. This is because many students today prefer to specialise in the field they aim to specialise in later on in the future, so some of the courses that are taught at higher learning institutions are narrow, as at the more traditional (and highest ranking) British universities, such as Oxbridge and the Russell Group institutions. These programmes can focus on the training and job skills required to gain a job: e.g. medicine. These programmes may give little or no insight to other aspects of life such as issues of global cultures, society, values and community (Parker, 1978). This is perhaps because the world has gained renewed interest in economics and the art of money making. Unfortunately, most students study in order to be able get a job after school and earn an income from what they learnt in school (Lowndes, 1969). In the past, things were a little different from what they are today. Most Greek scholars like Pluto learnt to gain knowledge and not to make money like many students do today (Michaels, 2008). The idea of making money from education was secondary, if it existed at all. Thus, many students now prefer to abandon liberal education and only study the essentials that would help them to pick up and maintain a job – which is arguably ‘training’ and the acquisition of ‘skills’, rather than ‘education’ at all.


Some employers have expressed their choice for liberal education stating that students who went through this system have a broad mind and can easily make good decision when faced with complex issues (Michaels, 2008). Students who leave college with narrow and sometimes incoherent courses of study most often find it relatively difficult to adapt to the working environment. The working environment most often has to deal with new challenges on a daily basis (Lowndes, 1969). This was clearly reflected in a study that was led by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). Employers said they wanted colleges to teach students how to integrate, analyse and apply their theoretical knowledge in real life situations (Michaels, 2008). This is because the working world often requires people to be able to analyse situations and make decisions. The working environment today is often multicultural as a result of the fact that there is increased travelling and migration (Michaels, 2008). When they start working, most of these students will have to interact on a daily basis with people from different cultures. There is no doubt that a liberal education could help these students to develop a liberal mind that easily accepts people from different cultures and traditions (Michaels, 2008). A narrow education would arguably not adequately prepare the students to face these challenges in future. Interactions with people from different cultural backgrounds begin at school and university. And more diversity arguably leads to better output.


Michaels (2008) even notes that, “Indeed, the increase in diversity in higher education over the last forty years has been matched by an increase in wealth. In 1971, the median income of entering freshmen at the 297 colleges participating in the American Freshmen Survey was 46 percent above the national average; by 2007, it had climbed to 60 percent (Pryor et al. 2007). As a result, poor students of all races are scarcer than blacks or Latinos. So places like Northwestern may be only 5 percent black, but since, according to Richard Kahlenberg (2007), only around 3 percent of the students in the 146 most selective colleges and universities come from the bottom socioeconomic quarter of the American population, you still have a better chance of meeting a black kid than you do of meeting a poor one on their campuses.”


Liberal education puts the mind at work, allowing learners to think widely and take many things into consideration when it comes to solving problems. Perhaps one of the most recognisable strengths of liberal education is that it does not believe in stereotypes (Hoerner, 1970). There are no fixed answers to questions or situations. Instead, each situation can be tackled in different ways considering the unique nature of various problems. The fact that there is no right or wrong answer helps to make learner to think and find justification to the answers they give rather than just recite them. Any answer to a particular question can be right or wrong depending on the argument that is used to justify the answer: this is ‘learning how to think better’, as some have called education itself. This helps to eliminate the problem of stereotypes in the learning process whereby some students simply memorise answers and reproduce them during exams (Hoerner, 1970). Stereotyping can block an individual’s mind so much that that the individual will not be able to think for himself. All he or she does is refer to an existing set of answers to resolve problems. Having said that, this model will often mean getting to the top of league tables!


Liberal education helps to promote the values and foundations of the free world (West, 1975). This is because it makes learners to have a free mind to think and express themselves. Freedom of expression is one of the pillars of any democracy. As such, it is right to adopt a system of education that is consistent with the values on which the Western society is founded. Freedom of expression in liberal education is visible when we consider the fact that there are no set answers or solutions to problem (West, 1975). Learners are free to choose any answer so long as they can convincingly justify their stands by explaining concepts and making use of good examples to illustrate their points (Morton, 1997). This is better than memorising a number of answers to various questions and situations that cannot be explained. Students and teachers are able to learn from one another when they operate in such an environment (Morton, 1997).


Drawbacks to Liberal Education

The process of designing a curriculum for liberal education is a complex one (Dewey, 2004). This is because, while it is important for students to learn about many topics and subjects in school, educators need to be careful in order to not to make the students suffer from information overload (Dewey, 2004). As such, it is important for school administration to come up with the right mix of the volume of material to be covered by the various subjects. In addition to designing the programs, it is also difficult to evaluate the progress of the students when it comes to measuring their ability resolve problems. This is because there is no defined empirical approach that can be used to quantify the students’ ability to resolve complex issues or integrate with ease (Morton, 1997). As such, much of the evaluation in this area is qualitatively done. This makes it in such a way that different colleges have different ways of designing their programmes. At the end of the day, the amount of knowledge grasped depends on the school which the individual student attended.

In conclusion, the German approach to research focused learning that covers a particular subject is suitable and effective for students who want to specialise in science subjects. This is because in order to make a breakthrough in science, several years of commitment to a particular subject and topic is required. In order to give enough attention to their core subject, these science students need to avoid taking many other courses that are not directly related to their specialisation. It is by doing so that they can be free to put in more emphasis on their core subject and easily make a breakthrough (Woodgate, 1975). In science, the more you specialise, the better you become in your field. However, social science mostly deals with comparing and analysing situations. In addition to that, different branches of social science are close related when compared to pure science (Woodgate, 1975). For this reason, students who study the social sciences tend to do better if they take more courses in the other related social science disciplines.






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