Liberal Education

The Place of the Arts in a Liberal Education

Last spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company spent several days in residence on the Pomona College campus. Their visit included master classes and ended with a joint public performance by the professional ensemble together with student dancers. Few Pomona students become professional dancers or choreographers, but almost fifty students participated in this training and performance. The opportunity to perform at this level was a valuable part of these students’ education and will have a lasting impact, regardless of their future careers. Yet some might ask why a dance performance, or training in dance, should be integral to a college or university experience and deserving of institutional investment and tuition dollars. This question needs a strong answer.

Amid all the current discussion of the value of a liberal education, and the pressure on colleges and universities to articulate benefits and career outcomes, the role of the arts is particularly important. If the standard of judgment is the salaries of graduating majors, the arts will inevitably be marginalized on our campuses. Likewise, if the standard is a direct disciplinary connection to “critical needs” areas such as STEM fields, the arts will seem peripheral to the “real” work of higher education. If, on the other hand, we regard fostering creativity as one of the core values of education, the arts disciplines can and must play a central role. We need to understand and articulate both the disciplinary cohesion of programs in the arts and their interdisciplinary value. Acting with this intention in curricular planning and resource allocation is potentially transformative for institutions and for the educational experience we offer.

What is the place of the creative and performing arts in a liberal education? In her recent plea for the place of the humanities (including the arts) in higher education and in modern life, Martha Nussbaum (2010) provides a strong argument for the arts at all levels of education. She presents a valuable cross-cultural perspective, with education for citizenship in India contrasted with that in the United States, and she discusses in particular the role of a children’s choir in fostering democratic inclusion. Nussbaum describes the role of the arts in challenging ideology by pointing out that “artists . . . always ask the imagination to move beyond its usual confines, to see the world in new ways” (23–24). Just as we expect our students to question and critique ideology in their oral and written work, we need to recognize that students also interact with and challenge ideology through artistic work. And—I would add—just as focus, discipline, and practice develop understanding and talent specific to mathematics, chemistry, or historical analysis, so also the diligence and training in arts disciplines allow students to develop understanding and to perfect artistic expression.

Opportunities for our students are often limited to analyzing the art created by others, without a chance to take part directly in the creative process. The performance and creation of art need to move from the margins to the center of a modern education because they can help shape a new generation of creative college graduates in all walks of life. On our campuses, we need to articulate the importance of the arts (including performing and fine arts), be clear about the “fit” of arts programs and courses within our missions and our curricula, and affirm the lasting social and community impact of students and graduates whose education values creativity, performance, and art-making.

The place of the creative arts

In her eloquent Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Helen Vendler (2010) argued that humanistic study should be centered on the arts. She pointed out that general education programs in universities have given pride of place to philosophy and history, and have tended to ignore cultural expressions that she regards as compelling and timeless: poetry, art, music, and drama. Vendler concluded her powerful argument by saying that “just as art is only half itself without us—its audience, its analysts, its scholars—so we are only half ourselves without it” (13). Convincing as this argument is, note that it places students and faculty in the academy squarely on the side of appreciators and analyzers of art, not of creators and performers. Is there a place in a liberal education for creation, and the creation in performance, as well as for analysis and appreciation? This question goes unanswered in her lecture, but I would answer, yes of course!

Likewise, in an essay on the importance of visual literacy, Deandra Little, Peter Felten, and Chad Berry (2010) discuss the value of learning how to look at and evaluate images in all fields, from art to astronomy. Visual literacy, they argue, should take its place alongside reading as a skill to be gained in a core curriculum. But could we take this argument a step further? If looking critically at images is parallel in importance to reading texts critically, should drawing (or creating visual images on a computer) rank with writing as a key skill to be developed in college? Even further, my colleagues in music emphasize the importance of aural literacy, the ability to listen well and to use hearing skills to further understanding and interpretive skills. How does performance of music, or recitation of poetry, enhance aural literacy?

In broad statements about the value of liberal education, the creative and performing arts tend to lurk uncomfortably around the edges, if they are present at all. We can all agree that “critical reasoning” is a desirable goal of education, and good arguments can be made that different dimensions of this skill can be gained through courses as disparate as philosophy, English literature, sociology, and art history. The familiar argument that there is good alignment between what future employers are looking for and the core programs in liberal education is clear for most of the curriculum (writing, numeracy, problem-solving skills, critical thinking), but less directly evident for our arts programs. Does that make them dispensable? Are they only “frills” that are nice supplements to a core education? Or do art-making, rehearsal, and performance contribute equally, if differently, to critical intelligence by developing one’s ability to express, imagine, interact with, and reinterpret the world and human experience? Again I would answer, yes of course!

Yet my own experience tells me that educators have not effectively communicated either the value of arts programs within a liberal education or an understanding of the arts as disciplines with their own histories, theoretical frameworks, and best practices. A few years ago, I presented Pomona College’s strategic plan to our board, organizing it around the Essential Learning Outcomes identified through the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative. It worked very well, except for one area: the arts. It was hard to connect Pomona’s ambitious goals to strengthen our program in the creative and performing arts with LEAP learning outcomes and skills. “Study” of the arts is mentioned in LEAP rubrics, but not creation or performance; “teamwork” is another LEAP outcome, but it appears as a generic goal that one could apply not only to a group of students performing a play or ensemble music, but also to everything from group classroom presentations to laboratory work. The rest of the LEAP initiative barely connects to the arts. As leaders in higher education, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to communicate the centrality of active creativity to our learning goals.

Uncomfortable fit

If fostering creativity is a goal of a liberal education, we should ask whether our institutional cultures and structures support that goal. Can we, and do we even want to, squeeze the creative and performing arts into the traditional academic mold of our colleges and universities? How do we define “scholarship” or “professional accomplishment” for a faculty member who teaches sculpture or voice? The standard is not books and articles published, but creative work exhibited or publicly performed—which is not always easy for promotion committees to assess. How do we assign grades to students in a music performance course? Does “effort” matter? Do the A grades go to the students with the finest voices, or do we grade on a combination of effort and product? Do we give college credit for theatre performance or set design?

As the report of the Harvard Task Force on the Arts (2008) recognizes, a similar challenge arises from the students’ point of view:

Many students remain oblivious to the hard work—the careful training, perception, and intelligence—that the arts require. They know that writing essays is a skilled and time-consuming effort. They recognize that problem sets in math and science are meant to be difficult. But ask them to photograph a landscape, compose a short story, or direct a scene rather than write an analytical essay and they will almost universally assume that the exercise will be quickly and easily dispatched . . . [Students must be taught] to exercise a quite different kind of diligence, one involving the mind and the body in different ways than analytical writing and computation do. (4)

In the words of the task force report, “The arts may be everywhere on campus, but they are also conspicuously marginal” (3).

The creative and performing arts are not “easy” programs for colleges and universities to mount well, especially since the arts tend to spill out of traditional campus buildings and have an impact on the surrounding community. Effective arts buildings are not always the most neatly groomed spaces on campus. Sculpture studios or theatre set-building workshops can be messy and noisy in active use. Public performance and exhibition (part of the goal of an active arts program) can raise questions from controversial politics to adult sexual content. These factors can lead to the marginalization of fine and performing arts on many campuses in one of two directions: as vocational training or as purely extracurricular activities. Let us look at each in turn.

Vocational training. Professional schools exist throughout the world as primary training grounds for future creative and performing artists: conservatories of music, schools of art and design. There are no analogous professional schools to train future historians or mathematicians; that is the role of our colleges and universities. Even though a substantial number of creative artists do in fact emerge from liberal arts institutions, a suspicion of “professionalism” can still linger around such programs, pushing them out of core general education and into a space inhabited by unabashedly professional programs such as nursing or business. At many larger universities, the arts are in fact separated into schools that are quite distinct from the school of “arts and sciences,” while at smaller institutions, the arts are sometimes taught by adjunct faculty with different institutional status. Without denying the valuable role of professional training in the arts in our colleges and universities, I would argue that areas such as studio art, theatre and dance performance, creative writing, and musical performance need to be better integrated into core liberal education—as part of general education requirements and an expectation of all students.

Extracurricular activities. The Pomona College Orchestra is conducted by a tenured member of the faculty, and the students in the orchestra receive regular academic course credit for taking part. The education that takes place in a semester leading to a performance of challenging pieces from throughout the music repertory is extraordinary. And yet, too often, members of the college community—including faculty—refer to such an activity as “extracurricular,” putting it parallel to other activities that students might choose to do for fun in their non-classroom hours. Courses that meet for discussion in classrooms and involve solving problems or writing papers are considered to lie at the heart of the “curriculum,” whereas other activities such as performing in a play or drawing a picture are not. It is true that the line between the curricular and the extracurricular is not always sharp; the same student may sing in the chamber choir (curricular) and in a student-organized a cappella singing group (extracurricular). It is also true that different colleges place different emphasis on the creative and performing arts within their curricula. Some students argue for the value of student control over arts programs, asking their colleges only for programmatic support and resisting the “taking over” of drama, for example, by departments and regular faculty members.

Why include the arts?

The fact that the creative and performing arts are not always an easy fit for colleges and universities is actually an important reason to include them. Their “angularity” helps challenge our campuses and push boundaries. There are at least four strong arguments for placing these fields at the heart of our institutions, rather than at the margins.

1. Impact on society. As public funding for the arts has diminished, especially in the United States, our colleges and universities are among the few places where creative talent is supported and where the creation of art can be promoted for its own sake, regardless of immediate commercial value. Some of our finest writers have found homes teaching creative writing at our colleges and universities. At Pomona College, our students have had the extraordinary opportunity of studying first with David Foster Wallace and now with Jonathan Lethem. Young artists sometimes launch their careers while teaching at colleges, while theatre directors may balance college instruction with directing plays off campus. In many towns, the local college or university is the primary community resource for arts programs. As secondary schools reduce funding for arts education, some students have their first direct arts experiences when they reach college and try out a dance or a drawing course.

For the arts to flourish in society, the college years present a critical window of opportunity to foster social and cultural responsibility. Many alumni speak of how their college education in the arts started them on a course of lifelong learning. A student’s experience of the role of the arts on campus will shape her or his expectations and community involvement well beyond college. And, as Dana Gioia (2008) has argued in this journal, during their college years most students have the advantage of “being part of a community that takes arts and ideas seriously.” Once the “support system” ends with graduation, however, they “face the choice of whether they want to be passive consumers or active citizens, whether they want to watch the world on a screen or live in it so meaningfully that they change it” (21).

2. Helping students “push their boundaries.” Many students arrive on college campuses as accomplished—or at least experienced—test-takers, familiar with standardized tests, short-response essays, and problem solving. A great deal of the curriculum feels quite comfortable for such students. But put such a student into, say, a dance class when he has never attempted that art, and he will be pushed out of his comfort zone. Work in the creative and performing arts represents a different type of learning from that in traditional classroom settings, and it can challenge a student and ultimately give him more confidence. When at age forty I took voice lessons, having never sung in my life, it stretched me in ways that were completely new to me. I not only became a better singer, I now understand music differently. I know something about music that I could not know without creating music myself. The same can happen with students of all ages on our campuses.

3. The arts and experiential education. Arts programs pull the education of students from the theoretical toward the practical. Scientists are fully comfortable with this process. In my own field of chemistry, students learn from classroom lectures and discussion about the principles of thermodynamics or how to synthesize organic molecules, and a healthy dose of theory gives them the framework for understanding the world around them. But then they go into the laboratory and learn about the “messiness” of science: the fact that experiments can go wrong, that they are not always easy to interpret, and that creative advances can arise from both repetition and serendipity. The actual experience of performing or creating a work of art is similarly messy, taxing, repetitive, and serendipitous. It is not that every art historian needs to learn to paint a picture in order to be successful in his or her academic career, but the experience of creating or performing in a rigorous setting provides a practical understanding of the creative process that cannot help but inform both the professional and amateur understanding of the arts for students in college and throughout their lives.

An active program in the creative and performing arts can be considered an extension of the move toward “experiential education” that is primarily associated with the social sciences. Just as a sociology course can benefit from a team project connected to a community-based organization, so too a music history student develops “embodied knowledge” from singing a madrigal with the college chamber choir, or by trying her hand at electronic composition. Edward Ayers (2010) has argued for the value of experience in liberal education. In his words, “Classrooms seem built precisely to suppress experience, to deprive students of as many stimuli as possible. The chairs are hard, the walls are bare, the windows are scarce. The only two senses allowed are hearing and looking” (6). Although Ayers is not talking specifically about the arts, these words certainly apply directly. Arts disciplines and their emphasis on practical technique, embodied knowledge, imagination, design, and observation have a critical contribution to make toward new paradigms across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

4. Teaching creativity. Innovation and creativity are core goals of the twenty-first-century economy. It is a truism that success in the future will involve making new connections and coming up with new ideas, not simply using one’s training in a well-defined career. The education for such a world needs to respond to this demand, and that requires core courses taken by students during their time in college. The creative arts are thus one of the vital components of a modern liberal education, as they develop a different set of capacities that students will benefit from long after graduation. One of our alumni—a successful international businessman—was a studio art major on campus. He now speaks of how his college experience broadened him and opened him to new ideas. Other alumni who have taken only a few arts-related courses also frequently cite those experiences as among the most formative for their current work, even if the connections are indirect. To prepare creative citizens and leaders, all creative capacities should be fostered through college education.


As they set goals, our colleges and universities need to consider the central role of the arts. The quality of spaces allocated to studio and performing arts is a statement on institutional priorities, as is the investment in arts faculty, balancing full-time tenured faculty members with visiting artists and part-time instructors. How we treat artistic interest and experience in admissions helps determine our student body. The display of public art, as well as that of student and museum-based art, shapes the aesthetic sensibilities of students. The role and priority of the arts—creation, experience, integration—characterize an institution as strongly as any other aspect.

At Pomona College, we have made the arts a focus of our strategic planning and our fundraising campaign. We are planning new facilities and implementing new initiatives in arts courses and museum programming, and—like many institutions—continuing to grapple with how to support and enhance the arts through admissions recruiting and in our curriculum. Our students’ training and performance with the Martha Graham Dance Company showed clearly how students can engage intelligently, meaningfully, and creatively with each other, with human experience, and with the world. Still, fully integrating the arts into the student experience and into our vision of a liberal arts education will require new thinking, bold conversations, and creative action.

As Dana Gioia (2008, 21) has said, “Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. . . . Art awakens, enlarges, refines, and restores our humanity.” Curricula on college campuses are the product of politics and compromise, and it is never possible to include everything that might be desirable in a student’s education. Balance between the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and the teaching of skills from critical reasoning to writing to numeracy might seem to be more than enough to fill a required program of study. Making room within the curriculum for courses teaching the discipline and refinement of technique that allow students to express themselves creatively can pay off in more broadly educated students who will build on that creativity in their future lives and careers.


Ayers, E. 2010. “The Experience of Liberal Education.” Liberal Education 96 (3): 6–11.

Gioia, D. 2008. “The Transformative Power of Art.” Liberal Education 94 (1): 18–21.

Harvard University. 2008. Report of the Task Force on the Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University,

Little, D., P. Felten, and C. Berry. 2010. “Liberal Education in a Visual World.” Liberal Education 96 (2): 44–49.

Nussbaum, M. 2010. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Vendler, H. 2010. “Centering Humanistic Study on the Arts.” Liberal Education 96 (1): 6–13.

David W. Oxtoby is president of Pomona College. The author thanks Pomona College Professors Donna M. Di Grazia, Katherine J. Hagedorn, and Eric C. Lindholm for their thoughtful reading of and suggestions for this essay.

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