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Too Liberal Or Not Liberal Enough: Liberal Arts, Electives, And Professional Skills

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Programmatic Curriculum Developments

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.1199.1 - 8.1199.14



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Paper Authors

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W.B. stouffer

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Jeffrey Russell

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session #2615

Too Liberal or Not Liberal Enough: Liberal Arts, Electives, and Professional Skills

W.B. Stouffer and Jeffrey S. Russell

Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison


A well conceived liberal arts education is essential to developing the professional skills needed for 21st century engineering practice. Currently, the liberal arts comprise a component of most undergraduate engineering curricula, though as a recent study indicates, not necessarily a significant or well-integrated component. Moreover, it has become increasingly common for liberal arts courses to be offered via electives. This paper presents findings from a national survey of civil engineering curricula that helps clarify the liberal arts content of engineering programs, as well as addresses the ramifications of the current configuration. Ninety of the nation’s 218 accredited undergraduate civil engineering programs (41.3%) participated in this survey, including the majority (81%) of the top undergraduate programs at schools that have a corresponding graduate program, and 50% of the top programs without a graduate program, as identified by US News and World Report (2002).

What are the Liberal Arts?

The liberal arts are a constellation of academic fields united by a common interest in developing the intellectual capacity of the individual. Sometimes referred to as arts and sciences or general education, sometimes housed within liberal studies or letters and sciences colleges, the liberal arts teach one how to think, not necessarily what to think. Since the Middle Ages the liberal arts have been the cornerstone of higher education. The liberal arts were so named because, quite literally, the “liber” or “free” arts were intended to free one’s intellectual capacity from the toils of manual labor (Schachterle 1997). Guilds instructed tradesmen such as masons and shipwrights through apprenticeships, while liberal arts colleges instructed civil servants, clerics, and the ruling class in the knowledge considered essential to polite society. From the Renaissance up to the present, the liberal arts have grown from the original lower division trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the upper division quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music) to encompass fine arts, economics, history, language, mathematics, philosophy, political science, sociology, and abstract science. While the precise definition of the liberal arts varies by institution, the purpose of a liberal education, whether in art history or the philosophy of science, remains the general development of the intellect in reason, judgment, and communication. All liberal arts are united in the respect that clear thinking, critical analysis, and concise communication are paramount to understanding and interacting in the greater world.

Today, most engineering degrees are offered at colleges and universities that also offer liberal arts courses and majors. By and large, however, engineering education is offered in parallel to a

Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition © 2003, American Society for Engineering Education

stouffer, W., & Russell, J. (2003, June), Too Liberal Or Not Liberal Enough: Liberal Arts, Electives, And Professional Skills Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee. 10.18260/1-2--11814

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