The Value of Liberal Arts Courses in Online Education
Tammy Starzyk, M.A.
Adjunct Instructor, Colorado Technical University Online
306 Woodard Avenue
Kent, OH 44240
The convenience of e-learning has prompted many universities to increase the accessibility and variety of their online course selections. As a result, many universities find themselves broadening their course catalogs to include liberal arts offerings in addition to traditional classes required for the completion of degrees in business, information technology, criminal justice, and the like. This diversity of course selections provides students of technical disciplines with a broad educational background and a repertoire of practical skills that will be applicable to their chosen career fields. Many students view liberal arts courses as “electives” which are unnecessary for their chosen disciplines; the inclusion of these courses in the curricula of various degree programs has, however, proven valuable. That approximately forty percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs in 2000 matriculated from liberal arts colleges and/or obtained degrees in the liberal arts (Durden, 2001) underscores the potency of the field and its relevance in technical disciplines.
Throughout my tenure as an art historian, I have welcomed my students’ queries about the merit of their enrollment in art history courses. Students ask, for example, “Why must I take an art history class when I’m a business (or criminal justice, or information technology) major?” My typical response—that the study of art history improves critical thinking and research skills—is supported by ample research. This paper will examine the reasons for including liberal arts --specifically art history--course requirements in otherwise technical/professional curricula, and will explore the challenges in teaching art history in an online environment.
The popularity of online education has grown exponentially in recent years. According to a study of 2500 universities conducted by the Sloane Consortium, the 2006 growth rate of online universities was 9.7 percent, compared to the 1.5 percent growth rate of the overall higher education student population, and eighty-three percent of institutions with online offerings that participated in the survey expected their online enrollment rates to continue to increase (Allen & Seaman, 2007). Most online universities tout the convenience that they offer many classes are conducted via “discussion forum” format, and can be completed asynchronously (meaning, courses and homework are not dependent upon temporal restrictions, but are available at any time of the day or night). Most online degree programs can be completed in less time than comparable degrees from a traditional “brick and mortar” university—two years as opposed to three or four, for example—and the emphasis on reduced time expenditure means that students are able to omit many of the liberal arts courses required in traditional university settings. At many online universities, students take only the classes that relate to their degrees: an information technology student will, for example, enroll exclusively in IT classes. Some online schools, however, maintain the more conventional array of degree requirements; as a consequence, an introductory art history or literature class often becomes part of the required curriculum for a technical degree.
One of the difficulties that I encounter as an art history professor is the misconception that studying art is “impractical,” that the field is irrelevant to the respective disciplines of most students and is, therefore, a waste of precious time. Overcoming this bias can be a formidable task for any instructor. So how might an art instructor convince a business administration student that the study of art is indeed worthwhile and valuable? One method of doing so is to emphasize the marketable, career-related skills that are honed as a result of studying art. By analyzing a work of art—a painting or sculpture, for example—students gain invaluable experience in training their minds to dissect a whole, to consider it in terms of its component parts. Gaining practice in discussing various qualities of an artwork—color, texture, shape—can prove to be an inestimable asset in nearly every academic field. This skill in analysis can transfer to other disciplines: a criminal justice student will realize that his facility in analyzing crime scene photography is improved; a business student will be able to scrutinize a company’s annual report more effectively. The rigorous study of art helps, ultimately, to foster a clarity of focus and an attention to detail.
While the study of art history can help students to develop their analytical abilities, it can also broaden the scope of their respective worldviews. Through exposure to art from varied of genres, styles and cultures, students become less inclined to adhere to rigid, centralized thinking. The Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, a great Roman Catholic proponent of liberal education, illustrated this point in his 1858 essay “The Idea of a University:” “"[The purpose of a liberal arts education is to] open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression. . . ." ” (National Institute for Newman Studies, 2007). By studying various subjects, the brain becomes more efficient at assimilating new ideas and concepts—“cross-training” the mind in such a manner, then, allows a student to understand varied topics and their respective terminologies.
A solid background in a liberal arts curriculum makes students attractive to potential employers, as this academic experience proves a student’s ability to adapt in an ever-changing, culturally diverse workplace. Studying the arts and humanities leads, moreover, to more adaptable thinking—students learn to think both concretely and metaphorically. Susan M. DiBiase of the University of North Carolina—Greensboro states “A liberal arts education is valuable because it teaches students to ask questions that matter, to weigh conflicting evidence, to appreciate the complexity of situations, and to develop logical, convincing arguments for solutions” (n.d.). Linear thinking—examining causes and effects, actions and outcomes-- is an asset in the workplace, surely, but even more critical is the ability to adapt a way of thinking to “match” the problem. The scope of liberal arts pedagogy tends to be expansive, while coursework in technical fields tends to be narrow in focus: a student who confines himself to the study of only one topic or skill risks developing a myopic and narrow view of the word at large. Studying the liberal arts offers students a wide range of competencies; this broad-ranging knowledge basis is vital for remaining competitive in today’s global job market.
Students who take courses in the arts and humanities also develop a greater proficiency in writing. The study of art history requires students to memorize artists’ names, titles of works, and creation dates and to discuss these pieces in a rational, cohesive fashion. No art historical analysis is complete without considering the artwork’s context: that is, the political, religious and social factors that influenced its creation. Students in most introductory-level art history courses must compose essays in which these elements are researched and examined. By gaining an understanding of the workings of preceding civilizations and the ways in which external factors played a role in the production of art, students develop a holistic view of the world. As a result, students gain proficiency in thinking analytically and asking questions. They also learn that a problem rarely has only one solution, and the ability to examine all possibilities is honed through the study of the arts.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), in a 2003 study, found that employers rated communication skills most desirable when considering candidates for employment (retrieved May 3, 2008 from http://www.naceweb.org/press/display.asp?year=2003&prid=169). One of the goals of the study of art history is for students to learn to speak and write creatively and concisely. Inherent in the study of art is the necessity to become familiar with a new way of thinking: an art history student must view a work of art and describe it in terms of its color, size, texture, form, shape, and other physical attributes. Viewing—and subsequently writing about—an object in such a critical manner fosters the development of written and verbal communication skills. Art history students must interpret works of art and present factual information --the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work and the artist’s relevant biographical information—in their analyses. This combination of research and analytical skill leads to an increased language aptitude, which is then expressed in a student’s speech and writing.
I have taught art history classes at two different online universities. At one, the courses are conducted entirely through “discussion forums.” Students respond to essay questions, develop PowerPoint demonstrations and write analyses of artworks. They then post their work (and their responses to each other’s work) on a common message board. I facilitate these discussions by encouraging my students to think analytically about the topics: I ask for examples to illustrate an argument, I question the students’ viewpoints and I encourage students to support their positions with relevant historical facts. These discussions become profound and exhaustive as topics are explored in a variety of ways, and students learn new approaches to answering questions simply by reading their classmates’ responses. Though many students who are unfamiliar with the study of art initially express trepidation regarding the subject matter, they usually develop an affinity for the material. Most students quickly discover the “real-world” merit of studying art, as they find their research, analysis, and writing skills becoming enhanced. Pupils often show marked progress in terms of project grades in the art history courses and in other classes. A student who relies solely on research from other sources to write his or her first essay will often advance, toward the end of the session, to writing a paper that demonstrates independent and creative thinking. These advancements in linguistic ability lend credence to the notion that studying art has merit in our modern, technology-focused world.
Offering liberal arts courses at online universities is critical for producing graduates who have adopted broad-ranging ways of thinking. The ability to consider a problem from a variety of angles and to analyze its component parts is essential if a student is to remain viable in the modern workplace. Through the study of the arts, students enhance their critical thinking and communication skills. This enhancement will, undoubtedly, give them an advantage over competing job-seekers who obtained an education comprised only of technical courses. By studying the liberal arts, students learn to ascribe importance to historical developments. Students develop a reverence, moreover, for the hallmarks –and virtuosi-- of past generations. In today’s technologically advanced, fast-paced society, it is essential that we not overlook the cultures that preceded us, and that we continue to acknowledge the value inherent to the study of the liberal arts.
Allen, I.E. & Seaman, J. (2007). Online nation: five years of growth in online learning. Retrieved May 19, 2008 from http://www.sloan-c.org/publications/survey/index.asp.
DiBiase, S. (n.d.). Why study the liberal arts? Retrieved May 19, 2008 from http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:XIYf09mPo30J:a-s.clayton.edu/WhyStudy/Why%2520Study%2520the%2520Liberal%2520Arts.doc+why+study+liberal+arts&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=2&gl=us.
Durden, William. Liberal arts for all, not just the rich. Chronicle of Higher Education. Vol. 48, Issue 8. P. B120.
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2003). Employers describe perfect job candidate. Press release. Retrieved May 3, 2008 from http://www.naceweb.org/press/display.asp?year=2003&prid=169.
National Institute for Newman Studies. (2007). The idea of a university. Newman Reader. Retrieved June 25, 2008 from http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/discourse5.html.