Apply Liberally for Best Results

You may have heard the term before, but what does having a liberal education really mean in this day and age?

Contrary to the misnomer that a liberal education has anything to do with politics, the goal of the liberal education learning model is to provide students with a broad understanding of numerous disciplines, while providing in-depth knowledge of their chosen field of specialization.

While the term “liberal education” used to conjure up images of men in togas debating the constructs of truth and beauty, today’s manifestation of being liberally educated is aimed at developing eager minds into the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. As the University of Lethbridge Statement of Philosophy declares, someone with a liberal education has developed “an attitude that enables the free and critical exploration of ideas. A liberally educated person is someone who is not limited by tradition, orthodoxy, or authority.

They are free and able to think for themselves—critically.

As such, liberally educated people are able to contribute to society with their free-thinking ability to ask good questions based on unique information linkages, evaluate answers with a critical eye to various possible outcomes, and contribute to the decisions made for the benefit of the greater good.

This is certainly not to say that someone who has not graduated from a post-secondary institution cannot, or will not, succeed. There are a multitude of examples of highly successful business people—even political leaders—who were university or college drop-outs.

What matters is their exposure to different ideas and philosophies, and their openness to incorporate this knowledge into their decision making to create innovative new solutions to problems. This kind of exposure is precisely what students receive throughout their post-secondary and graduate studies at the University of Lethbridge.

“The questions and problems our graduates will face in the future cannot be explored from only one perspective or solved with the tools of only one discipline,” Dr Bruce MacKay, Coordinator of the Liberal Education Program at the University of Lethbridge, explains. “The diversity of the world and its people can only be understood, appreciated and accepted with a breadth of knowledge and experience. This is important not only for citizenship and democracy, but for developing the skills needed to contribute to a strong, just society.”

Liberal Education & Employability

Being liberally educated is not only valuable in terms of the governance and advancement of society in general. Liberally educated individuals have exactly what today’s employers are looking for: the skills, abilities and attitudes that enable them to adapt to changing situations quickly, to be creative, to consider problems laterally and critically, to propose innovative solutions, and to work collaboratively with others.

Two recent publications from the Conference Board of Canada confirm the skills today’s employers are looking for. The first, Employability Skills 2000+, outlines the skills needed to enter, and progress in the world of work. The second, Innovation Skills Profile, delineates the skills, attitudes and behaviours needed to contribute to an organization’s innovation performance, to enable them to produce new and improved products, processes and services (

In both publications, the skills, attitudes, behaviours and abilities listed match the benefits of a liberal education unerringly. The list starts with the ability to communicate orally and in writing, and it ends with the capacity to turn ideas into products, processes or services as needed within any organization.

In between lies a plethora of capabilities such as: information acquisition and management, the ability to use, analyse and interpret numbers and data, problem solving, responsibility, adaptability, the ability to learn new skills, collaboration, project management skills, risk assessment, and the ability to generate creative solutions. All these skills add up to a high degree of employability on virtually any career path.

“Liberally educated people are good for a healthy economy, which requires articulate, informed and inventive producers as well as consumers. They are good for research, which requires the creative and imaginative exploration of problems, leading to novel approaches and innovative solutions,” explains MacKay.

Developing the Innovators of Tomorrow

The Liberal Education Program at the University of Lethbridge provides students with exposure to a multitude of disciplines in two ways: through the GLER (General Liberal Education Requirement) and through specific Liberal Education courses. GLER courses are built into all degree programs.

Regardless of what major a student is registered in, they also participate in a number of courses outside their specialization. A New Media student may indeed end up discussing truth and beauty in Philosophy, and a Physics major may find themselves enjoying a class in Dramatic Arts. Students are able to register in the GLER courses of their choice, making for a highly tailored degree program based on their personal interests.

In addition to GLER courses, the Faculty of Arts & Science also offers Liberal Education classes to all students. These courses approach a given unifying theme from the perspectives of science, social science, humanities and fine arts. Students enrolled in these classes are introduced to a breadth of disciplines in a single course.

A recent survey by Dr MacKay and his colleague Dr Jennifer Mather asked University of Lethbridge alumni their thoughts on liberal education after the fact. Of the 9000+ polled, approximately 10% responded. When asked of the value they attributed to the liberal education aspect of their undergrad degree, a whopping 88% ranked it as either important or very important.

One respondent states that, “as a scientist, I was forced to take classes outside of science and math, such as social psychology, philosophy, English, anthropology, and political science. What I “got out” of it was perhaps keeping me in touch with society—a reminder that life does exist outside of my scientific and academic world…I feel it makes me a more balanced and worldly adult…” (BSc Graduate 2001)

Another response reads: “…I find it very obvious when a co-worker has a college education versus a liberal education. There is often—but not always—a big difference in the accuracy of grammar and general written English. But the main difference is in general analytic skills. The folks without the liberal education requirement tend to think almost mechanically and don’t like to step back and see how things can be done better or easier…when I was required to do my GLER at the U of L, I thought it was a waste of time. It isn’t. It’s quite likely the most important part of my education as a management graduate.” (BMgt Graduate 1999)

With all this evidence in support of the contemporary ideals of a liberal education, it is safe to say that it is a very valuable, if not indispensable, aspect of any postsecondary education. While truth and beauty may still be the topic of discussion in any given Philosophy class—as they should be (minus the togas, of course)—it is merely one aspect of what a liberal education means for the innovators of tomorrow.

“A liberal education is absolutely necessary in the twenty-first century for meeting the social, economic and scientific challenges humanity faces on the whole, such as climate change, global pandemics, inequalities between rich and poor, even war or genocide, because of its multi-facetted approach to solving problems,” surmises Dr MacKay.

“Graduates who can think independently, critically and laterally from multiple perspectives will be prized employees, able leaders, innovative researchers and engaged citizens. The world will, quite literally, be at their fingertips.”

By Virginia Wishart with Dr Bruce MacKay