Students Must Assess the Definition of Liberal Arts

Over the past few months, as the Associated Students of Pomona College Commissioner of Academic Affairs, I have been in several conversations with faculty and administrators about the liberal arts education at Pomona and, more specifically, what students actually know or don’t know about the liberal arts. At first, I was a little incredulous at the idea that Pomona students did not realize that when they chose Pomona, they were getting a liberal arts education, although I also had no idea what the liberal arts were when I first came to Pomona.

So when I casually asked friends what they thought of the liberal arts, surprisingly—or not—I got a set of rather incoherent answers. Maybe the liberal arts means a breadth of education, or perhaps just quality education in general. But for others it could also mean a small school size, a prestigious reputation, or even Pomona’s generous endowment that makes many of these things possible. The question I have coming out of this is do students coming to Pomona think they are getting something different from what faculty and administrators think they are giving, and if so, why does this disconnect exist?

But first, what exactly are the liberal arts? In Western classical tradition, the liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, and logic; they were seen as essential skills for the free citizens to exercise their civic rights. In medieval universities, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy were added. With the Renaissance, there was also the addition of moral philosophy and even poetry, thanks to the Italian humanists. Yet, today, the liberal arts also seem to include the hard and social sciences, pre-med, and pre-law. Another definition of the liberal arts is whatever is learned for non-vocational or pre-professional interests, which might strike those Pomona students planning to parlay their degree into a lucrative consulting job as rather at odds with their own Pomona experience. Harking back to the classical tradition, the liberal arts may be for forming democratic citizens, but Pomona students seem to exist across the spectrum from the committed social justice activists to the hopelessly apathetic. The most cynical definition is that the liberal arts are just another prestigious symbol that historically arose to help cement the elite class as also culturally elite.

The definition that Pomona faculty and administrators will give most often is that the liberal arts are an openness to new ideas while also learning to think critically about what you already know—skills that the Career Development Office constantly remind us are in demand in the post-grad business world. There is also something hollow about this definition that maybe speaks more to the ideals of Pomona than the reality. I don’t think it is what most students had in mind when they chose Pomona. Perhaps the truth is that most students have chosen Pomona because it is a fabulously rich college with excellent faculty, nice amenities, and a name that may still get you recognized in the elite circles of New York and Washington, DC. But perhaps most students wouldn’t want to own that answer either. Maybe faculty and administrators think we are a liberal arts college, but in reality we’re just good at producing wealthy alumni whom we then ask for money; a majority of students are happy to accept that implicit bargain as well. It may be that no one really knows what the liberal arts are or if they even exist at Pomona College, although Pomona must be doing something right to justify its low acceptance rate and high tuition. Given this impasse, I throw the question out there, hoping to see some heartfelt and interesting responses: What do Pomona and the liberal arts mean to you?

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