WHY STUDY LIBERAL ARTS
A teacher takes a class under a huge banyan tree. Instead of taking down notes, students engage in various activities like excavation and collecting ancient artifacts. This is a typical scene of a liberal arts university, which doesn't confine students to classrooms rather encourages them to broaden their knowledge through exploration and discovery.
The first thing on a student's mind after finishing, high school is to step into the rat race of conventional wisdom by enrolling into a university. Most universities offer courses that are directly related to a specific degree with little thought to any other subjects.
Bachelors in Business Administration, for instance, one of the most popular subjects to study in university, will allow students to take only business courses without requiring a basic understanding of philosophy or literature. But if we could think of an educational model which aims to train a student not only for a specific job but for a valuable set of employable skills, a liberal arts education would fit the description. The prime objective of higher studies should be to improve the quality of life and wellbeing of people which a liberal arts education is supposed to do.
Although still not a popular concept in Bangladesh, there are attempts to introduce this model in the country. The Asian University for Women (AUW) and University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB) are possibly the only two private universities in the country that officially provide a liberal arts education. On the other hand, there are few other universities which do not proclaim themselves as a liberal arts school, and yet have taken some of the key elements of this educational model. For example, Independent University of Bangladesh is offering a department only for liberal arts. Interestingly, the concept of liberal arts education lies at the core of the University of Dhaka; even though the university does not incorporate all the elements of this model.
“We define Dhaka University as 'Muktochintar chorcha khetro' which implies that the concept of a liberal educator and the connotation of a liberal arts university has been always there, even though that is not the actual conduct of DU's education system,” says Dr Niaz Ahmed Khan, Chairman, Department of Development Studies in Dhaka University.
A liberal arts education is a system of learning that will help students to be free thinking, well rounded individuals. Liberty and flexibility are at the core of a liberal arts education.
The model offers courses from general areas of study-philosophy, mathematics, literature, art history, economics, science, and so on rather than focusing only in an applied or specialised field.
So what is so great about a liberal arts education?
Sadia Afrin, a student of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), believes that she is privileged to have studied in a liberal arts university. “I never thought that I could learn about different subjects like arts, humanities, literature, journalism, while studying CSE. Who would have thought that a student of CSE can quote lines from Shakespeare? I even worked as a reporter for my university's newspaper,” says Afrin.
For one thing, the cross-disciplinary, integrated learning that it offers sets it apart from any other specialised discipline. Jim Leach, a faculty member of University of Iowa in Annapolis Group Conference describes liberal arts education this way: “The most meaningful discovery in a liberal-arts education is that everything is related to everything else, though we may not know it at the time. Maturation is the tying together the threads of learning.”
“The breadth of this education is practical skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, writing, communication skills whereas the depth of this education lies in different subjects like science, arts and culture, language and many more,”says Dr Fahima Aziz, Vice Chancellor of AUW. “What a liberal arts college/university does is it provides an integrated study by incorporating the breadth and depth and thus provides a well-rounded education.”
Apart from offering broad-based interdisciplinary courses the model gives students the flexibility of being able to declare a major after having had a taste of many different subjects. “This model highlights on a broad education by offering different general education courses before students choose their majors in their second or third year,” says Juditha Ohlmacher, the advisor of Student Affairs of ULAB. “Even after choosing their majors students have the option to take different general education courses across a broad range of options and study them in an integrated manner.”
Ideally, a liberal arts education also makes sure the student acquires certain skills and basic values that will benefit both the individual and the community.
Safra Ghouse, a liberal arts graduate of AUW believes that the education that she has received is transformative and is not only confined to her classroom. “We talk about instilling humanity and peace in our community sitting in the classroom”, she says. But what's the use of education if we do not go through experiential learning and try to bring about the change that we talk about?
“We have gained leadership skills and how to critically analyze a situation. So when we went back to Sri Lanka for our summer vacation we helped to bridge the gap between two communities of Sinhalese and Tamils of two villages. Because of the prolonged civil disturbance between Tamils and Sinhalese, they were reluctant to talk to each other and share each other's sufferings. We helped them to be in each other shoes, and tried to put an end to the communal dispute of those two villages,” she elaborates. “Along with the local communities we also tried to help ex-combatants and their family by providing them medicines, food, shelter and clothes. The change that we attempted to bring about might not be very big, but I personally feel satisfied that my education adds some worth to the community around me.”
In fact in a liberal arts university students gain a broad base knowledge along with analytical and communications skills, problem solving, evaluative and critical thinking abilities and the skill of writing succinctly, reflective reading skills, the ability to pose meaningful questions and ethical decision making, the ability to cooperate with each other to work in a team. In short, it teaches the student how to learn.
This kind of learning is facilitated by smaller classrooms (not seen in conventional universities) to encourage interaction between students and teachers and for group discussions. Activities outside the classroom, field trips, projects, internships and part time jobs are part of the process ensuring that the student is constantly intellectually stimulated and motivated. Extra curricular activities, a definite emphasis on sports and physical education are part of the model. Not all liberal arts universities need to follow the similar features, many of them could evolve according to their necessity and still could maintain the essence of a liberal arts college. “Unlike a lecture-based and exam-centric educational system that we mostly see in Asian context, liberal arts education prepares students to learn throughout the life,” says Dr Aziz.
The education that teaches to live, not only to earn a living
Liberal arts aims to produce 'intentional learners', which means learners who truly understand the value of study and how education is supposed to be used. The goal of this education is also to produce such learners who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources and continue learning throughout their lives. Most importantly, liberal arts does not prepare a student for a particular kind of job, rather it cultivates a significant set of employability skills in a student which could make them competent for a multiple kind of jobs.
“One of the main goals of liberal arts to make the learners flexible, says Juditha. “People who enter the workforce today might be playing different roles over the course of their careers. They might not stick to the same career throughout their life, liberal arts education gives their minds the flexibility to explore and cope with the new environments.”
The Fallacy and the Reality
Being a new concept in Bangladeshi context there are a few misconceptions regarding liberal arts.
Myth 1: A Liberal Arts degree means a Bachelor in Arts.
There is a widely circulated fallacy regarding liberal arts that it specifically refers to the fine arts and humanities. In reality, liberal arts could be integrated into any discipline, including science and business. Regardless of a student's major, liberal arts curriculum intends to develop intellectual capacities through an integrated education as opposed to a professional or vocational education system. A student can choose from a great variety of disciplines, for example credits in liberal arts education might include but is not limited to courses in the humanities (history, art, literature, writing, philosophy, religious studies, theatre, performance studies), the natural science, environmental science, computer science, mathematics, economics, social sciences as well as for interdisciplinary courses involving any of those disciplines and many more. Hence a liberal arts student can be a Bachelor in Science too.
“This school of thought believes that a student should be well acquainted with different discipline in order to get a well-bounded education, says Juditha. Hence a student who is majoring in Literature for example, has to take courses from mathematics or economics too or the vice-versa.”
Myth 2: Liberal arts education is applicable only for America! In Bangladesh we need individuals with professional skills.
“When my relatives ask me what we study and I tell them about our broad curriculum the reaction that I get is not very positive most of the time”, Tanzila Khan, a second year student says. “Many of them believe that in Bangladesh we need to be specialized in medicine, engineering or architecture to secure a good future. Studying liberal arts seems a luxury to them which will not get us anywhere.”
Another misguided belief about liberal arts is it won't be applicable for our cultural setting. Niaz Ahmed Khan believes that, “We are going through an unstable time when we are losing our morals and beliefs. Since liberal arts trains our minds towards wise action, the need of having liberal arts graduates will always be there.” A recent publication from Harvard reveals that many Asian countries like China, Hong Kong, Singapore are moving towards liberal arts colleges recognizing the value of this education. If these countries can successfully implement this model in their education system, then why can’t we?
“Education is not culture-specific”, says Dr Fahim Hussain, a faculty member of AUW. “In Bangladesh too, we need students who can engage in critical discussions, practice their leadership skills and analyze a situation from different perspectives.”
Myth 3: A liberal arts graduate will have a hard time getting a job.
Surprisingly, the value of liberal arts graduates is often underestimated by people. In reality, a liberal arts student can enjoy more advantages than a professional degree recipient! Unlike other areas of studies which are in high demand in our country, the programmes in the liberal arts often don't train students for work within a specific discipline. Moreover, the graduates of liberal arts programmes have skills like problem solving and critical thinking that are of great value on the job.
“These days while the job market is very competitive, there are a certain set of skills which help us to differentiate from one candidate to the other" says Raiyan Alam, project coordinator of Human Resource department of a pharmaceutical company. “Other than the professional proficiency, skills like problem solving, critical thinking, leadership and communication skills are important too in a real world setting.
“In the real world complexity, an engineer or a businessman needs to learn subjects outside their narrow specialty too. That's what liberal arts program does,” Juditha opines.
“Our students enjoy the opportunity of getting experience outside their fields through different summer internships,” says Dr Hussain. “By showcasing their skills of critical reasoning, writing, presenting and most importantly their adaptability to different situations, they could prove how different concepts regarding liberal arts are flawed. While an engineering school may produce computer science graduates, a liberal arts school produces computer science graduates who are endowed with leadership and problem solving skills. That's what sets them apart from a professional degree holder,” he says positively.
The need for specialized education can never be underestimated, yet a liberal arts education provides a wider platform for students who would like to explore interests different from their majors. The goal is to equip an individual with an open mind, an ethical approach to life, and consequently to learn to be a better citizen and human being.