The Liberal Arts in the 21st century

Ben Withers, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University.

As the 21st century develops, land-grant institutions such as Colorado State University face new challenges for which the liberal arts will be essential partners, if not central players: the need for an educated citizenry, addressing social and cultural dimensions of technological change, developing and understanding key resources of the knowledge economy, meeting a critical need to educate civically engaged and productive citizens.

The subjects traditionally tied to a liberal or “freeing” education (history, literature, philosophy, music, art, the social and natural sciences) will remain key elements in higher education. They are the products of human creativity, ingenuity, and expression – and the foundation for understanding key aspects of our common humanity and our place in the universe. The 21st century will continue to emphasize the intrinsic value of the major areas of human achievement even as the boundaries continue to expand.

A liberal education, however, is not just a collection of subjects. It is an approach to learning, intellectual skills that develop a disciplined understanding of standards while at the same time problematizing the assumptions and practices we’ve inherited. These skills that broaden the mind, what are often identified as “critical thinking” or “pro­blem solving” or effective communication, have proven powerful in the long term. Short-term or purely vocational, skills-based training is an uncertain investment in an age when technology unsettles how and what we call “work,” changing the patterns of our daily lives, and generating new opportunities and challenges to traditional careers.

“A liberal education, however, is not just a collection of subjects. It is an approach to learning, intellectual skills that develop a disciplined understanding of standards while at the same time problematizing the assumptions and practices we’ve inherited.”

According to the World Economic Forum, “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up in completely new jobs that  don’t yet exist.” Even the tech world is awakening to the need for context and broader, more inclusive perspectives: a recent study from Strada Institute for the Future of Work indicates that “the growth of liberal arts majors entering the technology industry from undergrad outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10 percent.”

The fundamental contribution of a liberal education is the formation of well-rounded graduates, students with the ability to think through various challenges, contradictions, and tensions. Whether a student majors in one of our disciplines or encounters us through general education, the liberal arts provides an essential element of CSU’s land-grant mission: an education to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Research and scholarship

Another fundamental element of CSU’s mission is research – and research in the College of Liberal Arts is done in traditional ways with published books, scholarship that engages the community and connects it to the classroom, and creative artistry in the form of dance, art, and fiction. All of them serve the people of our state and transform our world. The University’s reputation for research in areas of vital interest such as water, energy, environment, and food systems is well established. Not only does the College of Liberal Arts contribute to CSU’s national reputation in these vital areas with programs and faculty expertise and participation in multidisciplinary research clusters, the college has award-winning faculty who advance the University’s reputation in our specific disciplines.

The Morrill Act proposed that land-grant universities “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” As this century progresses, we need to approach complex “wicked” problems with the capability to develop holistic, integrated approaches. We will continue to contribute to the quality of life for the people of Colorado and the world through the performing and visual arts and through our outstanding poets and creative writers; through innovative discovery and scholarship to solve local and global problems; through research and teaching that engages directly with the community; and through increased partnerships with Extension.

We in CLA, through carefully chosen investments in key people and programs that support and make visible CSU’s excellence in areas of its traditional land-grant strength, will continue to develop our own distinctive brand as a place that connects an engaged liberal arts education to civic education and local, state, and regional democratic institutions. The future will see new pillars of research excellence arise in the liberal arts in the study of democratic institutions through existing excellence from the Straayer Center for Public Service Leadership, the Center for Public Deliberation, the Public Lands History Center, and the Center for Science Communication, among others.

What does liberal arts mean?

In the 8th century B.C.E., the Greeks coined the phrase “liberal arts” to indicate the knowledge and skills that free citizens would need to engage in civic life.

Liberal comes from the Latin liberalis
meaning free (rather than imprisoned or subjugated)

Arts comes from the Latin root ars, art
meaning art, skill

The liberal arts, then, provide the knowledge and skills for people to be successful, productive members of a free society.

These skills include critical thinking, creativity, empathy, perspective-taking, analysis, and more.