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What Is a Liberal Arts Education?

As immigrants, many of us do not understand the essence of a liberal arts education. Some think it is an education provided by political liberals in a democratic society, while others think it is the study of the arts in the form of water coloring and painting.

Rather, a liberal arts education suggests the liberation of an individual from ignorance through education. Liberal, in this case, refers to broadness, openness, freedom, and exploration. A liberal arts student usually spends the first two years taking courses to fulfill general education requirements (breadth), and then pursues a major in the second two years (depth).

But why arts?

The word arts here is different from visual arts forms like sculpture or drawing. Instead, it refers to the quality, expression, and understanding, according to aesthetic principles, of ideas of higher significance. In other words, it entails a standard of education that is of the highest state—the developing and sharpening of the mind.

At the very heart of all Ivy League and selective universities is a profound commitment to a liberal arts education; such an education encompasses the study of humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences. This wide-ranging study is the core of what it means to be an educated person.

You wonder why a student who wants to become an accountant has to study history, literature, and music theory. Why should you study any subject that does not teach you job skills? Why should you study philosophy when all you want to do is to find a job after college?

To answer these questions, let’s see how a liberal arts education will serve you.

  • It exposes you to different fields of thought, teaching you that every field of knowledge only gives a partial view of the whole. As one philosopher once said, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Thus, studying broadly will help expand your mind, so that you know there is more than one approach to any issue, argument, or situation.
  • It develops your critical thinking ability. The diverse body of knowledge you absorb will enable you to examine, question, and synthesize information from multiple sources into a unique whole. Thus, you come up with your own interpretation not based on what you are told, but based on what you comprehend and examine.
  • It improves your verbal and written communication skills, tolerance for ambiguity, and understanding of the world.

Furthermore, according to a committee report by members of the faculties of Andover, Exeter, Lawrenceville, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale entitled “General Education in School and College,” written more than half a century ago, “the liberally-educated man” was characterized as the following:

  • “The liberally-educated man is articulate, both in speech and writing. He has a feel for language, a respect for clarity and directness of expression, and a knowledge of some language other than his own. He is at home in the world of quantity, number and measurement. He thinks rationally, logically, objectively, and knows the difference between fact and opinion. When the occasion demands, however, his thought is imaginative and creative rather than logical. He is perceptive, sensitive to form and affected by beauty. His mind is flexible and adaptable, curious and independent. He knows a good deal about the world of nature and the world of man, about the culture of which he is a part, but he is never merely ‘well-informed.’ He can use what he knows, with judgment and discrimination. He thinks of his business or profession, his family life, and his avocations as parts of a larger whole, parts of a purpose which he has made his own. Whether making a professional or a personal decision, he acts with maturity, balance, and perspective, which comes ultimately from his knowledge of other persons, other problems, other times and places. He has convictions, which are reasoned, although he cannot always prove them. He is tolerant about the beliefs of others because he respects sincerity and is not afraid of ideas. He has values, and he can communicate them to others not only by word but by example. His personal standards are high; nothing short of excellence will satisfy him. But service to his society or to his God, not personal satisfaction alone, is the purpose of his excelling. Above all, the liberally educated man is never a type. He is always a unique person, vivid in his distinction from other similarly educated persons, while sharing with them the traits we have mentioned.”

These are still, I believe, the ideals of a liberal arts education, which prepares you for leadership positions requiring effective communication, independent thinking, sound judgment, respect for differences, capacity for innovation, and ability to defend your own point of view. These are the skills that you can take to any job; these are the skills that you can draw upon for a lifetime.

Thank you all!

Wan Chen, Admissions Advisor