What Is Liberal Education?

Liberal education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

The broad goals of liberal education have been enduring even as the courses and requirements that comprise a liberal education have changed over the years. Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.

To learn how liberal education is adapting to twenty-first-century needs, read about The LEAP Challenge and engaging all college students in signature work on significant questions and problems important to them and to society.

Essential Learning Outcomes

AAC&U has defined a robust set of "Essential Learning Outcomes" that students develop through a twenty-first-century liberal education. Beginning in school and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students can prepare for both responsible citizenship and a global economy by achieving the Essential Learning Outcomes.

Commonly Confused Terms

Liberal Education: An approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

The Liberal Arts: Specific disciplines (e.g., the humanities, sciences, arts, and social sciences)

Liberal Arts College: A particular institutional type­­­—often small, often residential—that facilitates close interaction between faculty and students, while grounding its curriculum in the liberal arts disciplines.

Artes Liberales: Historically, the basis for the modern liberal arts:  the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music).

General Education: The part of a liberal education curriculum that is shared by all students, provides broad learning in liberal arts and science disciplines, and forms the basis for the development of important intellectual, civic, and practical capacities. General education can take many forms, and it increasingly includes introductory, advanced, and integrative forms of learning.

The Changing Nature of Liberal Education

 

Liberal Education in the
Twentieth Century

Liberal Education in the Twenty-First Century

What

  • intellectual and personal development
  • an option for the fortunate
  • viewed as non-vocational
  • intellectual and personal development
  • a necessity for all students
  • essential for success in a global economy and for informed citizenship

How

  • through studies in arts and sciences disciplines ("the major") and/or through general education in the initial years of college
  • through studies that emphasize the Essential Learning Outcomes across the entire educational continuum—from school through college—at progressively higher levels of achievement (recommended)

Where

  • liberal arts colleges or colleges of arts and sciences in larger institutions
  • all schools, community colleges, colleges, and universities, as well as across all fields of study (recommended)

Statement on Liberal Education

Read the Statement on Liberal Education approved by the AAC&U board of directors (1998).