As Campus Dean, I am frequently asked to define the “liberal Arts” and “liberal education” and how these concepts relate to one’s major. Firstly, the liberal arts concept is not related to the use of “liberal” in political ideology. The liberal arts refer to disciplines in the humanities (history, English), the fine arts, and the sciences, including mathematics, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. Liberal arts fields traditionally did not include technical/vocational disciplines such as engineering, business, and healthcare. Today, the term “liberal education” is used to refer to a core foundational curriculum that includes a wide array of liberal arts courses from each of the above groupings. Virtually all four-year degrees, whether they are in liberal arts majors or professional/vocational majors, in the University of Wisconsin System require a liberal education foundation for the first two years or more of a degree. Why is this?
A liberal education foundation is the most important part of a four-year degree. It develops crucial skills that can be applied to a major, a career, and to becoming an engaged citizen. Liberal education skills include written and verbal communication skills, analytical skills including an understanding of logic and scientific methodology, an appreciation for the human condition and the arts, and an understanding of cultures and people different from one’s self. Liberal education skills teach a student how to learn and how to be a global citizen. These skills are more important than ever before as they foster interdisciplinary thinking and creativity. They are also the skills that employers often seek out in their employees.
Our system of education is the envy of the world in part because of our liberal education tradition. Today, in many developing countries such as China, higher education leaders are trying to introduce more liberal education skills to the foundation of their systems. Why? Because a liberal education foundation produces superior graduates who are adaptable, creative, and curious. It is unfortunate, that in today’s economy, some have argued that we can no longer afford a higher education system that includes a liberal education foundation. Some have argued that four-year degrees should be shortened and streamlined so as to produce more high-tech trained graduates who are narrowly focused in a particular field. The problem with such a strategy is that it economizes on the absolute core of the most important part of college.
The University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County is a liberal arts campus of the UW Colleges and the University of Wisconsin System. Our faculties hold the highest degrees possible in their fields of study and are engaged in scholarship and research related to their disciplines. Our faculty and staff specialize in using their expertise to deliver the liberal education foundation of all UW majors and in connecting our communities to UW resources and lifelong learning opportunities. The liberal education skills learned on our campus provide a student with lifelong skills that can be applied to any major, graduate/professional program, or career.
Thomas Pleger is Campus Executive Officer and Dean at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County.