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Broader is Better: Liberal Arts Colleges in the US

One aspect of American higher education which may be unfamiliar to some newcomers to the US is the liberal arts college. These colleges, rather than preparing students for a specific vocation, aim to give them a broad base of general knowledge and to develop their critical and creative thinking skills. These schools, which comprise about 15% of all the institutes of higher learning in the US and generally offer a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree, are small (often with fewer than 2,000 students), have low faculty/student ratios, and usually aim to create a strong sense of community among students and teachers on campus.

While the liberal arts college is a distinctly American institution, its historical roots stretch as far back as medieval Europe, when students began flocking to such universities as Oxford, Paris and Bologna to study the seven liberal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These students belonged to the upper strata of society, and their studies were intended to prepare them for leadership in government and the church. And while these universities were to change as the centuries progressed, this medieval curriculum was to have an influence on the development of the first American universities.

The first American university, Harvard, was founded in 1636 with the intention of training ministers and modeled after one of the colleges of Cambridge University, which at this time was still stressing a broad-based education. The other early US universities—almost all of which initially had religious affiliations—also followed this pattern. However, the development of the sciences in the nineteenth century led many people to question the purposes of education and the type of curriculum that should be stressed. Modeling themselves after German universities, many American institutions—including Harvard, Yale and the other early universities—began to grow in size and to emphasize scientific research. Others chose to remain small and committed to the original ideas of the liberal arts.

The curriculum of liberal arts colleges can vary, but in most cases it is founded on a broad basis of coursework in the humanities, natural science, and the social sciences. In most cases, after two years of broad instruction, the student selects a “major” area of study and devotes the next two years intensively—though not necessarily exclusively—to that area. However, this is not always the case. Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, NY, which was founded on a belief that students should decide the course of their own education, does not have required courses or majors; St. John’s College, with campuses in Maryland and New Mexico, follows a “Great Books” program based on the traditional medieval idea of the liberal arts. Colorado College follows a “block plan” in which students intensively study only one subject at a time for three and a half weeks, and Warren Wilson College, in North Carolina, is a “work college”, meaning that it requires all students not merely to study, but also to perform 100 hours of community service and work a campus job.

American liberal arts colleges can have different characters. Some like Bowdoin in Maine and Williams in Massachusetts pride themselves on their long histories; others, like Washington’s Evergreen State College, a public institution founded in 1967, are relatively new. Liberal arts colleges can be religious or secular, traditionalist or progressive, single-sex or coeducational. But, while each college has its own character, all remain committed to the idea of the liberal arts as essential for developing a student’s general knowledge and critical thinking skills. While some question the value of a liberal arts education in preparing students for a profession, many employers now prefer liberal arts graduates who bring to the marketplace flexibility, creativity, and a broad knowledge of many fields.

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