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What Is a Liberal Arts Education?

A liberal arts education demands that you gain skills and experience in critical thinking, self-reflection, designing projects of discovery and creation, encountering difference, exchanging ideas, and developing ethical judgment. By offering an education in the liberal arts, Grinnell College endorses life-long learning characterized by sustained intellectual curiosity and an open mind for assessing the unfamiliar. At the same time, by using critical thinking to assess evidence, to identify assumptions, to test logic, to reason correctly, and to take responsibility for the conclusions and actions that result, a student of the liberal arts can grows ethically as well as intellectually. A liberally educated person should be capable of principled judgment, seeking to understand the origins, context, and implications of one's knowledge. Because knowledge is lost if it is not shared, both students and teachers of the liberal arts strive to engage in precise and graceful communication. This communication takes place verbally, but also in other ways, such as the symbolic and expressive systems of mathematics, music, computer languages, the natural sciences, and the visual and performing arts. By learning and exploring these methods, one may attain an understanding of aspects of human thought, which is a crucial part of liberal education.

What should the liberally educated person know? While each discipline in a liberal arts curriculum has its own rationale and purpose, the heterogeneity of good critical thinking and the free exchange of ideas militate against any single answer to this question. As each student works to create an academic plan that is appropriate to his or her interests, talents, and goals as a person accountable to a life shared with others. Grinnell's Curriculum Committee recommends that all students should have some work in the following:

  • writing and literary studies;
  • a non-native language;
  • mathematics;
  • scientific studies based on experimental observation;
  • human society past and present; and
  • fine arts, with attention to both creative and analytical methods.

Another way to think about liberal arts education is to inquire about its purpose:

  • to encourage intellectual and aesthetic curiosity;
  • to promote confident and accurate verbal expression;
  • to foster the ability to work both independently and collaboratively;
  • to examine critically one's own traditions and assumptions; to understand in depth at least one culture that is very different from one's own;
  • to approach complex problems from a variety of analytical perspectives; and
  • to realize obligations and capabilities to serve the common good.

Grinnell further defines a liberal education in "Elements of a Liberal Education" section of the Academic Catalog.

Can I Take Anything I Want To?

Yes and No. Like many questions you'll encounter at Grinnell, the answer is complicated and nuanced.

Indeed, Grinnell does not have prescribed general education or distribution requirements or even very many graduation requirements. Consistent with the philosophy of self-governance, an individually-mentored curriculum speaks to the freedom you have to plan your own course of study and the responsibility you have to honor your adviser's guidance while following the College's policies.

Your faculty adviser is familiar with Grinnell's mission, core values, and curriculum, so she/he/ze can help you with planning your own education in the liberal arts. You should consult with your adviser about your plans and goals (your personal "mission") as well as the courses you want to take within the context of the liberal arts (the College's mission). Your adviser may also suggest some courses for specific reasons.

Please refer to the catalog to understand the requirements for graduation.

Finding Balance

Think about the first year as a whole — you'll take about 8 different classes your first year. Simultaneously, begin to plan for your second year.

  • Study a variety of disciplines. Think broadly about different ways of learning. A diversity of courses helps balance your workload. (You will want to avoid writing forty papers in one semester!)
  • Explore as many interests as you can. You will have exposure in college to disciplines not taught in high school. Even familiar disciplines are often taught differently at this level. Most students' goals change over four years, and it's important to keep your options open.
  • Develop your command of written English, not only in the Tutorial but in at least one other reading and writing course during the first semester.
  • Strengthen skills in mathematics and foreign languages — these will serve you well in your life beyond college.
  • Come prepared to take coursework in all three academic divisions of the curriculum - Humanities, Social Studies, and Science.
  • Think about extracurricular activities as a way to explore some of your areas of interest. There is a lot of learning outside of the classroom as well as in the classroom.

How Can I Plan for a Major?

  • Build a foundation by taking basic courses in a number of departments, so that you will have a range of choices for a major.
  • Don't rush your choice of major. Explore several fields before deciding. (You will also have time to continue other interests after you declare a major.)
  • Explore early those fields which are highly sequential (especially the sciences, math, and foreign language). Carefully use the Departmental Advising Suggestions for this purpose.
  • Think carefully before you set your mind on a double major. Double majors are possible, but not always encouraged. Why? One reason is that students with two majors end up with half their credits in only two departments. If you major in one department, you are free to study the second area in depth without being bound by another set of major requirements and scheduling two sets of required courses. Your adviser may have other reasons, given your overall academic goals.
  • Don't focus exclusively on your choice of major. Your total program and the skills you develop here are more important for most jobs and graduate schools than the particular major listed on your transcript.

How Can I Develop an Academic Plan for All Four Years?

When you declare a major (during your second year), you will also create a plan for the courses you will take in your third and fourth years at Grinnell. You'll look at the courses you have already taken and make a list of the courses that will complete your undergraduate education. Along with this course plan, you will write a one-page statement that explains your goals, how your program fits together, and how it balances coverage of basic intellectual skills, important areas of human knowledge, and the diverse scholarly and creative methods known as the liberal arts. Many students prepare for this early, writing a tentative four-year plan as soon as their first or second semester. If you want to participate in off-campus study in your third year, then the fall of your second year will be planning intensive. Although most students declare one of our existing majors, a few students each year create an independent major.

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