The historian W.R. Connor has pointed out that the etymology of the word “liberal” in “liberal education” derives from a Greek word for free—a word the Athenians used specifically to distinguish free citizens from slaves. Connor proposes we define liberal arts as “the skills of freedom.”
I like this translation because it emphasizes that a liberal arts education began as a public good, and remains a public good today. It also points to the fact that a liberal education prepares students to manage their world and their lives, and not just their careers. I also like the fact that defining liberal education as the skills of freedom makes it clearer that the goal of liberal education is not the acquisition of specific content but the development of broad skills. Liberal education was designed to be the education truly necessary to ensure wise decisions and a good society.
Liberal arts education is not a body of knowledge, it is a mode of instruction. It is a way of thinking, an approach to education. There is nowhere other than a liberal arts college in which students and professors can interact in such a dynamic give-and-take on a regular basis. This can’t be reproduced in a large classroom, can’t be reproduced electronically, can’t be reproduced in an institution where teaching isn’t the primary focus, and can’t be reproduced in an institution where outstanding teaching is not the norm and expectation.
In the 21st century, in an increasingly complex and globalizing world, every citizen, in my opinion, needs a liberal education. There is a greater need for education in these crucial skills of freedom than there has ever been. The more complicated the society, the more multicultural our nation, and the more international our daily interactions, the more difficult it is to make wise decisions, to make good choices, to assess the reliability of received knowledge, to determine what further knowledge is needed, and to critically evaluate competing arguments.
There is a declining public awareness of the value of a liberal education. It is important that liberal arts colleges remain true to their principles and their curricula, despite strong pressure to do otherwise. And it is not just important to those of us in liberal arts colleges—it is important to the world.
H. Kim Bottomly, President, Wellesley College