A Liberal Arts Education and the Study of History

The tradition of the liberal arts traces its roots back to the ancients who sought to educate people in a manner that emphasized clear thinking, strong communication, sound ethics, and wise leadership. These principles have been nurtured, revived, and promoted through the centuries as successive generations of people saw the value of an educational model that produced individuals inspired to serve the greater good and to do so in a manner that reflected integrity and wisdom.

What are the attributes of a sound liberal arts education? First, it stresses the importance of a close relationship between faculty and student by which intellectual and communicative skills can be sharpened through accountability. Smaller, more intimate settings allow for the transfer of life knowledge as well as academic knowledge. These settings also allow for debate and discussion, fostering respect for others and leading to the development of conviction that will guide the future leaders in their actions.

Second, while government and business leaders might value education for the workers it can produce who feed the profit and tax machines, a liberal arts education seeks to produce individuals able to pursue their passions and interests even if these transcend or veer from their undergraduate academic emphasis. A job is imperative, and people able to reason well, communicate effectively, collect and manage information carefully, and have an ethical compass are people for whom the vista is broad. Far from limiting options, a liberal arts education expands them and in so doing frees the person to pursue vocational and personal fulfillment as they define it.

Third, a liberal arts education creates an environment which cultivates in its students the ideal of service to others. Learning to think about the experiences, languages, cultures, and history of others allows the liberal arts student to consider how their innate and learned skills can be used for the benefit of others and by extension the whole of society.

Finally, an education rooted in the liberal arts prepares leaders and citizens to consider their decisions from the broadest possible perspective. Good decisions need to be informed by concepts of beauty, justice, order, etc. Study in the broad sweep of disciplines that is typical of a liberal arts education informs and trains a future leader in considerations of these types.

What role does history play in a liberal arts education? History has long had a central role in the liberal arts, as evidenced even in the history of PC. Understanding the actions of past people, seeing the causes of events and the results of decisions, and evaluating their recorded thoughts all contribute to the development of the skills and attributes desired of one trained in the liberal arts. The study of history introduces students to the stories and cultures of other peoples, places, and times; it equips students with the learning skills of research, data management, and organization; and it causes students to evaluate current opinions, form new ones, and communicate with clarity and persuasion. Far from limiting students to a narrow range of occupational options, the study of history in the honored tradition of the liberal arts, prepares the person to accomplish what they set their hands and minds to doing.*

The study of history, therefore, rests at the heart of a liberal arts education. Elsewhere in the History Department’s webpages, you will find testimonials of alumni, experiences of current majors, and the activities of faculty past and present that demonstrate that what is described above happens. We are glad that you are considering joining us.

* Peter N. Stearns, ‘Why Study History?’, AHA, 2008.