What Is A Liberal Arts Education?

And Why Is It More Important Than Ever in the Age of ChatGPT?
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With all the attention that Generative AI is getting these days, and the promise that ChatGPT can even write our essays for us, you might be wondering, "Why do I need to get an education at all, never mind the classic liberal arts degree like the one offered at Dartmouth?"

By Cecilia Gaposchkin, the Charles A. and Elfriede A. Collis Professor in History at Dartmouth

What use is a liberal arts education in the age of ChatGPT? It's a good question. Despite all the promises that proponents of AI are currently making, it is precisely in this environment that a liberal arts education is more critical than ever. To understand why, we need to understand what exactly a liberal arts education is.


Let us begin with what liberal education is not. First and foremost, it is not oriented to political parties, agendas, or philosophies. The phrase predates the creation of the two basic political parties by about 2,000 years. The "liberal arts" (artes liberales) go back to the ancient world, well before even the existence of universities, which emerged in Europe around 1200. The liberal arts were the skills (artes) taught to free men (liberales)—that is, non-laborers or slaves. They were what trained free men (and, yes, they were only for men) to be able to think independently, and thus be competent to participate in governance and society.

What else? A liberal arts education is not a technical training in a particular subject matter that leads to a particular job and career trajectory. It is not a nursing degree. Or an accounting degree. Or a degree in computer systems administration. This does not mean that a liberal arts education will not prepare you for a career. It just doesn't prepare you for a single career. Indeed, what it does is prepare you for any multitude of careers. It is precisely because holders of liberal arts degrees are not pigeon-holed into a single vocation and thus a single career path that they have the enviable ability to make and take new professional opportunities.

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"In short, a liberal arts degree is a degree in thinking. What does this mean? It means that a liberal arts education, done right and undertaken with enthusiasm, curiosity, and passion, makes you smarter."
Cecilia Gaposchkin

A liberal arts education should also not be confused with a degree in one of the humanities. Ars (ars artis, for those of you who have had Latin) means "knowledge," "science," "skill," and "craft." It is a false friend (that is, a word that does not mean the same thing as a similar sounding word in a different language) that has not served the STEM fields well. Physics is an ars. Engineering is an ars. Robotics is an ars. So too are art history, sociology, and economics. A liberal arts education encompasses all academic disciplines, including the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences (everything from engineering, to chemistry, to computer science). In fact, a liberal arts education is defined precisely by its multitude of disciplines, which invites multiple ways of thinking about the world, about knowledge, and about "truth."

This is one of the reasons that liberal arts institutions like Dartmouth value diversity so much, because a diversity of knowledge, and a diversity of people who bring in different types of knowledge, is one of the foundational building blocks of this philosophy of education.

So what, then, are the liberal arts? And what is a liberal arts degree?

In short, a liberal arts degree is a degree in thinking. What does this mean? It means that a liberal arts education, done right and undertaken with enthusiasm, curiosity, and passion, makes you smarter. That is, it hones your natural skills of discernment and intellect to productive thought and the creative application of knowledge.

It exposes you to different types of thought (often through distribution and general education requirements—there's that diversity principle again) so that you can at once understand the power and the restrictions of different ways of thinking about the world (that is, different disciplines).

It teaches you how to use your thinking, and the skills acquired in honing your thinking (reading, writing, numeracy, analysis, synthesis, the persuasive expression of ideas, and the creative application of knowledge), in novel and creative ways, to solve problems and imagine new possibilities. That is, it teaches you how to be nimble and creative.

A liberal arts education teaches you to distinguish between claims and evidence, and between fact and opinion, and then to use facts and evidence to pursue informed agendas. These skills are honed first in the context of an area of major study, but they are also transferable skills, to be used in any—or many—context(s).

This is why, when employers hire students from liberal arts colleges, they care less about the student's major than about the student's ability to talk about their major intelligently. That is, employers hire our students not for what they know, but for how they think. Likewise, medical schools are eager to accept students who have studied the humanities, since these applicants bring a set of interpretive abilities with them that is vital in the practice of medicine; and it is also why law schools want students from the gamut of the disciplines, because the law touches on all areas of the human endeavor.

This approach to higher education has served us well. The liberal arts scheme has been the driver of knowledge production and intellectual inquiry since the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was the Middle Ages that invented both the institution of the university and our notion of critical thinking. Peter Abelard (d. 1142) is perhaps the most profound intellectual of the 12th century and a central figure in the development of formal learning that became university education. He rejected the intellectual method of the previous centuries that rested on the loyal acceptance of past authorities and taught a new generation of students to discover new knowledge by applying human reason to intellectual problems. Abelard explained simply that, "By doubting we examine, and by examining we come to the truth." Many historians recognize this moment in the 12th century to mark the beginning of the European "take off" and the seeds of modernity.

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It is a history we should pay attention to, at a moment when ChatGPT and Generative AI invite us to rely on large language models and algorithms (even if massive) that depend on existing knowledge, texts, and formulas. Useful, to be sure, in telling us what we already know, but what Abelard showed was that relying on past authorities prevented the discovery of new ideas, and that it was only through the critical application of human reason by trained minds to vexing or unsolved questions that new discoveries were made, and that knowledge as a whole moved forward.

In this sense, ChatGPT is just a souped-up version of eleventh-century scholarship, repackaging material from the body of previous writing (and here, not necessarily even the good writing) to reformulate existing ideas.

The point of a liberal arts education is to train the brain to look for new ideas, new ways of thinking about problems, new solutions. And to do so using knowledge framed with ethical values rooted in core principles of common humanity. For Abelard and his contemporaries, it was understood that one had to master the basic grammar of thought before tackling the more difficult and more important work of theology and philosophy. To that end, the standard university curriculum was rooted in the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). One had to learn to think critically, rationally, logically, and creatively before one could undertake more ambitious intellectual work. The seven liberal arts—the precursor of our own conception of "the liberal arts education"—were the building blocks of the competent mind.

The same premise underlies our own system of liberal education. The standard liberal arts curriculum is designed to ensure that students, upon completing their course of study, will have mastered the basic grammars of critical thought in order to then tackle, with creativity, reason, and inspiration, the more specialized tasks of professional life. This is why, looking back, careers often have so little relationship to majors. Amy Coney Barrett majored in English literature. Anthony Fauci majored in classics. Nikki Haley studied accounting and finance. Michael Bloomberg studied electrical engineering. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Dartmouth Class of 1988, majored in Asian studies. It is also why so many career successes appear to have had such varied career paths.

What then, in this context, is the function of the required major if not to learn a specific amount of disciplinarily-defined content? It is not—not!—to train in a field that is based on information learned in that major. It is to practice thinking, researching, interpreting, writing, learning, and synthesizing with increasingly complex arenas of knowledge. It is to confront ambiguity and be able to reason toward the best solution. It is to come to a position on a question and argue for it convincingly to others. These, not discipline-specific information, are the skills (artes) that employers seek to capitalize on when hiring our graduates.

The major is thus, in a sense, the "thought laboratory," the brain's sandbox. Working within a defined discipline, with large and challenging data sets (whether in chemical data, or historical data, or philological data), the liberal arts student is prompted to manage, assess, and apply increasingly sophisticated ideas and information. Managing and interpreting complex concepts works the brain, like any muscle, to become stronger and more nimble—that is, smarter.

This is also why, if you want to get the most out of your undergraduate experience, you are probably better off writing a senior thesis in a discipline rather than double majoring in two closely related disciplines. This is what will push your brain farther—make you smarter—and this is the best investment you can make.
Because, in final analysis, a liberal arts education has, over the past millennium, proven to be the best way to develop the capacity to think in sophisticated, multivalent (there's the diversity principle again), complex, and reasoned ways. And this is the thing that will permit you to do what ChatGPT, which constructs ideas from existing knowledge, will never be able to do: to imagine and create new vistas for the future.


Cecilia Gaposchkin, the Charles A. and Elfriede A. Collis Professor in History at Dartmouth, studies late medieval cultural history, and has published on the crusades, on the kings of medieval France, and on liturgy. She also served as Assistant Dean of Faculty for Pre-Major advising between 2004 and 2020.

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