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Phi Beta Kappa, Eta Chapter of Maryland

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

What is Liberal Education?

Mortimer Adler offers a classic definition of liberal education:

Let us first be clear about the meaning of the liberal arts and liberal educations. The liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished.  Liberal education is not tied to certain academic subjects, such as philosophy, history, literature, music, art, and other so-called "humanities." In the liberal-arts tradition, scientific disciplines, such as mathematics and physics, are considered equally liberal, that is, equally able to develop the powers of the mind.  Read More.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a liberal curriculum was meant to prepare a young person for success and leadership in society, business, or government.  This preparation required understanding of the shared culture -- common concepts, values, traditions, ways of doing things.  All of these things facilitate communication and mutual confidence among those of that culture, and so that knowledge made one effective in it.  It was also good to understand other cultures, which allows one to put one’s own culture in perspective and to work more effectively with those of other cultures.

For many people today, the concept of “liberal education” still tends to be centered mainly in the arts and humanities. But in recent decades, what a young person needs in order to be successful in life has enlarged to include an understanding of science and technology.  At present, it is generally accepted that the natural sciences should be at the very core of a well-designed program of liberal studies.  But the role of technology in liberal education remains controversial.

Should technology be regarded as an essential part of a well-rounded liberal education?  The answer depends at least partly upon how technology is taught.  At many leading universities in America today, technology is not taught primarily as a discrete set of technical skills.  Many courses in engineering, computer science, and related fields seek to convey an understanding of technology that is grounded in fundamental principles of mathematics and science.  Courses in these fields frequently address the aesthetic and cultural dimensions of technology, and they often require students to engage in critical thinking, problem-solving, and ethical reflection.  Read More.

At many colleges and universities, there is an ongoing, lively debate over what constitutes a liberally educated person.  At UMBC, we encourage prospective members of Phi Beta Kappa to explore these issues and reflect upon what it truly means to be a liberally educated person.  Read More.

Frequently Asked Questions | What is a Liberal Studies course? | Phi Beta Kappa at UMBC