The liberal arts are general areas of study, like philosophy, literature, mathematics, natural science and social sciences. (They are called “liberal” because they include subjects the ancients considered essential for a free person). Rather than focusing on specific technical or professional skills, a liberal arts curriculum concentrates on developing skills like critical and analytical thinking, effective communication, and ethical reasoning. Recent studies show that these are the skills employers increasingly seek when hiring college graduates.
A liberal arts curriculum grapples with the questions that have compelled humans for thousands of years. What does it mean to be human? What is truth and knowledge? What is ethical behavior? How does technology shape culture? What techniques and methods can be applied to achieve an understanding of the world and each other? In many ways, the point of these questions is not to come up with definitive answers, but to understand the philosophical, historical, political, and cultural approaches to the questions as a basis for informing one’s own judgments.
What are the benefits of a liberal arts degree?
Let’s say you decide to pursue a degree in the liberal arts. What will you do with it? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to study a specific program of professional skills like engineering, nursing, or computer science? You’ve probably heard a lot about the need for college graduates to acquire the skills that will make them attractive to employers. Choosing a specific program of study can be an excellent decision, and ultimately, the answer depends on you. But it’s important to understand the benefit of a liberal arts degree to make an informed decision.
A liberal arts degree teaches practical, tangible skills that are applicable to a wide range of careers and that will never become obsolete, regardless of how rapidly technology and the knowledge economy will continue to change. Many employers are looking for employees who know more than area-specific skills, such as how to ask pertinent questions, how to communicate effectively in speech and writing, and how to be productive while adapting to complex, changing situations. Consider these findings of a recent study asking employers about college learning and the workplace:
88% of employers say that the challenges employees face within their organizations are more complex today than they were in the past.
Nearly two-thirds of employers think that today’s college graduates who want to pursue advancement and long-term success need both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth knowledge and skills applying to a specific field or position.
More than 80% of employers want college to place more emphasis on teaching students oral and written communication skills, and critical thinking and analytical skills.
More than 84% of employers say that doing a significant senior project would help students prepare for success.
Source: It Takes More Than A Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. By Hart Research Associates. https://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf
How do I decide between different liberal arts colleges?
There are over 500 liberal arts college in the United States. Most of them offer courses in general areas of study, individual attention, small class sizes, and the close reading of texts. How can you choose between them? There are choices you’ll want to make no matter what course of study you pursue. Do you want to be in an urban or a rural environment? Do want to be near or far from home? And there are academic choices as well.
There is a dizzying array of curricular models out there: self-designed majors, learning communities, service learning. At Shimer, we’ve created a curriculum that combines the ability to choose courses that interest you with a core curriculum that offers a cohesive and supportive learning environment. We also offer service, volunteer, research, internship, and study-abroad opportunities. The curriculum at Shimer is based on the pillars of a liberal arts education: small class sizes, the use of “Great Books” or primary-source texts, and dialogue-based learning. But there are three things that make our program uncommon: The Core, The Comps, and The Thesis.
The Core is our sequence of courses in Humanities, Natural Science, Social Science, and Integrative Studies, which help you build skills and knowledge in a structured and supportive way. Because everyone has different interests, you also earn forty of your credits in great elective courses like The Films of Kubrick, Feminist Theories, Abnormal Psychology, and Goedel, Escher, and Bach.
The Comps are built-in checkpoints to make sure you are making good progress developing both content knowledge and the communication, problem-solving, creative thinking and other skills that employers are looking for. The are not standardized tests but comprehensive essays on subjects like The Atomic Bomb or Frankenstein. The Core is designed to prepare you for the Comps, but if you need more help to succeed, we make sure you get it.
The Thesis is a final research project you complete as a senior. We help you develop your project and keep to a timeline, and offer plenty of feedback in regularly scheduled workshops with your professor and your peers. The end result is a piece of original work that represents the culmination of all that you’ve learned over the course of your studies, which can help you stand out in your grad school applications and job interviews.
The Shimer curriculum has more than 60 years of experience behind it—and we continue to evaluate and make improvements on a regular basis.
At Shimer, we’ve perfected a method of teaching or pedagogy that uses discussion as the basis of learning. These discussions are not debates, the sharing of opinions, or book-club conversations. Rather, students drive the conversation based on their questions or observations about a text, and professors help steer the conversation to uncover new questions, themes, and ideas. In this way, learning is not simply about grasping complex concepts but about developing new habits of thinking, habits that lead to engaging more questions and reaching informed judgments. The outcome of a discussion is not always “getting it”; sometimes, a fruitful class leads to the ability to better articulate what about a text impedes easy comprehension.
A large part of the theory behind our methods is an understanding of the relationship between individual learning preferences and the effects of teamwork when discussing a text in a classroom. At Shimer, it’s not only our classes that are small; we have a small total student body so that professors can get to know you and your learning preferences. In this way, the classroom becomes a safe and respectful environment in which individual students can work together to examine a text and explore ideas. This enables students to become accountable to each other, and, most importantly, to themselves. The final piece is assessment: we hold ourselves accountable for providing an educational experience that develops the critical, analytical, and creative thinking skills we promise.