A liberal arts education has at its center four practices that distinguish it from other kinds of learning: critical thinking, examination of life, encounters with difference, and free exchange of ideas. By offering an education in the liberal arts, Grinnell College asserts the importance of lifelong learning characterized by sustained intellectual curiosity and an open mind for assessing the unfamiliar. At the same time, by using critical thinking to identify assumptions, to test logic, to evaluate evidence, to reason correctly, and to take responsibility for the conclusions and actions that result, a student of the liberal arts can grow personally as well as intellectually. A liberally educated person should be capable of principled judgment, seeking to understand the origins, context, and implications of any area of study, rather than looking exclusively at its application. A liberally educated person should also be skilled at solving problems, drawing together multiple perspectives in the creation of new 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, including the symbolic and expressive systems of mathematics, music, computer languages, the natural sciences, and the visual and performing arts. By learning and exploring these systems, one may attain an understanding of aspects of human expression, which is a crucial part of liberal education.
In Cultivating Humanity (1997), Martha C. Nussbaum speaks of “an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.” Nussbaum argues that the central task of liberal education is to activate each student’s mind, so that choices and actions may emerge from independent thought rather than from acceptance of conventional assumptions or dictates. Drawing on Socrates and the Stoic philosophers, Nussbaum sees liberally educated individuals as continually examining themselves and their own traditions. She also urges liberal arts students to gain valuable knowledge by studying alternative perspectives and cultures different from their own.
In the Grinnell College curriculum, the only requirements for graduation are completion of a First-Year Tutorial, 124 credits, and the academic major. This is subject to a maximum of 92 credits in any one division and 48 credits in any one department. This flexibility places significant responsibility on each student to design a coherent and compelling course of study, in conversation with a faculty adviser. Each student declares an academic major at some point during the first four semesters of enrollment. In consultation with an adviser, the student plans a comprehensive program that can incorporate options such as mentored research, off-campus study, teaching certification, an internship, or an interdisciplinary concentration.
The academic major gives a distinctive shape to the four years of undergraduate education. At the same time, it is important for students to balance exploration and focus in their nonmajor choices. Students need to design a program of study outside the major that reflects thoughtful planning and is consistent with their goals. Working closely with the academic adviser, the student develops a provisional four-year plan that reflects the diversity of academic disciplines while incorporating study at the advanced level in one or more fields. The provisional plan usually requires revision, but with each change the student and adviser consider how the plan reflects the student’s evolving sense of what it means to be liberally educated.
Student and adviser will need to discuss areas that the student seems inclined to avoid. Such resistance often points to an area of knowledge or a form of intellectual discipline that will enrich and balance the student’s academic program. Skills, methods of inquiry, and knowledge often transfer across disciplines. The creative application of these in new contexts may lead to new insights or solutions. Moreover, the ability to analyze material critically from multiple perspectives may illustrate the limitations of any single theory, however powerful, in explaining a complex range of phenomena. Finally, breadth of study prepares the student to approach new questions not yet formulated, in fields and professions not yet imagined.
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. However, as each student works to create a personal definition in the form of the academic plan, the principles outlined below, articulated by the Grinnell College faculty, may serve as a useful guide.