In this era when you can’t turn around in the education world without someone talking about science, technology, engineering and math, the liberal arts often get short shrift. Part of the reason is that people don’t fully understand what the liberal arts are and why they remain foundational to a real education. This post helps explain all of that. It was written by  Gerald Greenberg, senior associate dean of  academic affairs; humanities; curriculum, instruction, and programs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. Greenberg is a linguistics expert who teaches courses in Russian and whose interests include Russian and Slavic linguistics as well as syntactic theory. He has published many articles and essays on a variety of topics, including areas such as stress placement, the syntax of various non-finite constructions, case marking, and language change.

By Gerald Greenberg

Anybody with any relation to higher education knows what the liberal arts are and how they work — or, rather, they think they do.

In fact,  there is not a single definition. All  liberal arts degrees from all those liberal arts colleges are not the same; earning a liberal arts education at Syracuse University does not entail the exact same experience as earning a liberal arts degree at Harvard University, and neither of those entail the exact same experience as earning one at Carleton College. But that doesn’t mean the liberal arts are  not foundational to an educated mind.

Indeed it is fair to say that understanding the liberal arts is comparable to understanding the Tao, the source of everything in Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophical system that explains why things are the way they are and why things happen the way they do.[1]  The Tao is formless; the Tao is endless; and everything is part of The Tao. Wisdom comes from knowing the Tao, being one with the Tao. One cannot know The Tao; one experiences The Tao. “Tao cannot be defined, because it applies to everything.”[2]

So, what is the Tao of the liberal arts?

Through my work at Syracuse University and with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, I’ve come to realize that when James David Dickson  writes, “The tao of liberal arts education has led some people to believe that all college degrees are created equally,” the people to whom he is referring are misconstruing the issue. [3]  We know that not all college degrees are created equally and not all liberal arts degrees are created equally — but the point is that while liberal arts colleges come in many shapes and sizes across the country, they all provide students with a liberal arts education.

It doesn’t matter where you get your liberal arts education. What matters is that the school provides a liberal arts education that produces the appropriate result.  What is that result? The transfer or creation of knowledge and the cultivation of the habits of the mind so graduates can develop and mature into successful, productive members of society who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and come to understand the joys and benefits of lifelong learning.

It might be difficult to define precisely the exact courses and components that comprise a liberal arts education. Some schools, for example, may require a study abroad experience for a degree, while others may not; some may require a course on sustainability or the environment, while others may not. But people who understand the liberal arts can recognize a liberal arts education when they see one.

A successful liberal arts education can be provided in various ways. The modes, methods, and emphases through which it is delivered are determined by the school that provides it. While the exact components and emphases of a liberal education provided by each institution will be influenced by the school’s mission, as it should be, the heart and soul of the liberal arts will be provided at each school. Different students acquire knowledge and expertise differently, and different schools have different systems, programs, and opportunities to engage their students in the liberal arts.

This typically entails students completing a liberal arts CORE or a set of general education requirements that include courses in writing, languages, mathematics, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. These requirements ensure that each student receives exposure to different academic areas and disciplines. They expose students to the variety of questions posed in these areas and to the modes of thought used to analyze and address those questions.   Schools may also require learning experiences through service learning, study abroad, internships, and sustained independent research projects. These experiences, just like courses in the liberal arts CORE, play an important role in providing a liberal arts education.

All components of the liberal arts CORE contribute fundamentally and equally to provide students the CORE of their liberal arts education. It is the CORE that prepares them to complete their majors and minors in a critical way with a liberal arts perspective, regardless of the field. It is the CORE that prepares each student for his or her future, regardless of the direction of his or her current ideas and plans.

In a world where people will change jobs multiple times in a lifetime and may hold jobs in the future that don’t even exist today, the knowledge they obtain in college and the writing, communicating, critical thinking, and analytic skills they acquire through a strong liberal arts CORE and liberal education will provide the foundation for a successful life, both professionally and personally.

With the understanding that the successful completion of a liberal arts education involves the completion of a wide range of requirements as determined by the mission of each individual school, the Tao of The Liberal Arts becomes unveiled. Understanding the liberal arts is comparable to understanding the Tao.

The Tao cannot be defined; the Liberal Arts cannot be defined.

The Tao is the source of everything;  the liberal arts are the source of everything.

One experiences the Tao; one experiences the liberal arts.

The word tao is sometimes translated as way or path. The Tao is the source of everything; everything is part of the Tao. Each of those liberal arts requirements are part of the liberal arts; each is crucial to the success of an institution’s liberal arts education. They are all part of a liberal arts education, regardless of a student’s major. [4]

Have you ever heard students say they need to get some requirement “out of the way,” so they can take courses they really want or courses that are really important? That is because they do not understand the Tao of the liberal arts. You cannot get those requirements “out of the way” because they are all “part of the way,” part of the liberal arts CORE, part of a liberal arts education. In a liberal arts education, everything is part of the way. It is the way.

[1] Thanks to my colleague, Gareth Fisher, for helping me with some of my comments about Taoism and The Tao.

[2] Heider, John. The Tao of Leadership: Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching Adapted for a New Age (1985; reprint, Atlanta, Ga: Humanics New Age, 1997) 14.

[3] Dickson, James D. “HOMEFRONT COLUMN: Obama Student Loan Gambit Rewards the Real Risk-takers — College Students.” The Daily Tribune, 31 Oct. 2011. Web.

[4] Hayes, Sam. “Study Says Liberal Arts Gains Similar Across Majors.” U.S. News University Directory. N.p., 06 Dec. 2014. Web.