What is Liberal Studies?
Former Director, MALS
A recent conversation with a potential applicant to the MALS program reminded me that not everyone knows exactly what graduate level “liberal studies” means. It was also a reminder that Oakland University’s MALS program is still new, having begun only in 2003. So, upon reflection, I decided that in this issue of the Spectrum I would provide a brief account of the Liberal Studies degree’s history and why it has been growing in popularity for adult students, both here and at the national level.
Although Oakland’s MALS program is new, liberal studies at the graduate level has been around for over four decades. Beginning in the 1970s, programs emerged at some of America’s leading research institutions as well as at smaller liberal arts colleges. Today, graduate Liberal Studies degrees are offered across the country from Wesleyan and Dartmouth to the University of Chicago and west to UCLA. Many of these programs experienced their greatest growth in the 1980s and some have attracted very large numbers of eager students. One example of the latter is Georgetown University’s program which grew from a small number of students in the 1970s to over 450 in the fall of 2007.
A relatively new development is the establishment of doctoral programs in Liberal Studies. Among the first institutions to do so were Duke and Georgetown; the latter now has 36 doctoral candidates working toward their Ph.D. degrees. The evolution of the degree at Georgetown is firm evidence of the increasing value of the interdisciplinary approach and the appeal of a degree that allows both breadth and depth of the learning experience.
From its inception, the Liberal Studies degree was designed to offer a unique graduate experience that holds interdisciplinary learning at its core. Although the exact requirements for the degree vary, most institutions require a core of courses that include an introductory course as well as core seminars in the humanities, social sciences and/or sciences. One aspect that has great appeal is the opportunity to choose electives that are of greatest personal interest. These allow the student to shape their course of study in ways not possible in a single discipline. A fascination with art history, for example, can be explored one semester and a course in political theory or cross-cultural communication the next. For adults who have been away from a college campus for some years, the chance to explore new areas of learning, to update their research and writing skills, and to fire-up their intellects through challenging courses and lively, informed discussion is what leads them to the Liberal Studies program.
Each of the MALS core courses, including the introductory colloquium and the core seminars, are unique. They are designed specifically for the program and are taught by faculty who share their expertise and enthusiasm as well as an interdisciplinary approach to education. The core courses are also kept small, with enrollment limited to ten, allowing for plenty of discussion and individual guidance in research. Each requires a substantial written paper as part of the requirements, and students are encouraged to hone their skills both in oral and written work.
Faculty from a wide variety of disciplines have taught for MALS, and, thus far, innovative courses have included an exploration of the nuclear age, an inquiry into America’s class differences, and an examination of Russian film and culture, the latter combined with travel to Moscow and St. Petersburg. A limited range of courses is available during the summer semester for those who wish to study year round.
The last requirement for the MALS degree is called the final project (LBS 600). Working with a faculty mentor, the candidate for the degree defines a topic that combines the methods and theory of two disciplines. Proposals for the final project are submitted to the program’s Executive Committee, and once that approval has been given, the student then works with his or her mentor and two other faculty members who, together, comprise a thesis committee. Further details on the final project are available online at the MALS website and in the MALS Handbook.
Liberal Studies programs attract a broad spectrum of students whose education, life experiences, and personal goals vary enormously. Uniting these adult students is a common desire to acquire new areas of knowledge and at the same time transcend traditional disciplines. By crossing boundaries within academe, liberal studies students combine the methods and theories of different disciplines as a means to examine the contemporary world and to expand their knowledge base as a means to greater personal growth.
Oakland’s students share some similarities with other liberal studies graduate students across the USA. Most are employed full time. For that reason, the core seminars and many of the electives are available at night. Some are recent university graduates, but most graduated some years ago and currently hold positions in business, education, or government. Although they come from varied backgrounds, they all share the motivation to expand their intellectual horizons.
Some MALS graduates consider the degree as purely a personal endeavor, but many also receive recognition from their employers for completing a master’s degree. A number continue on to Ph.D. programs. Among the latter is the first Graduate Assistant for MALS at Oakland, Dan Brown, who is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in English at Central Florida University. (Please see the story featuring Dan Brown in the in the Student Profile section of this website). Whatever an individual’s goals, the program offers learning experiences and personal attention that can shape and transform intellectual life and individual goals—a challenging but exciting prospect!
Oakland’s program currently has fifty students, making it one of the larger master’s degree programs on campus in terms of numbers. Its rapid growth in such a short span of time suggests that its goals and courses are providing the kind of graduate education valued by adult students. Not only does the program provide a rigorous graduate-level educational experience; it also contributes to personal growth and, ultimately, to use a colleague’s apt description, the cultivation of a lifelong “voracious curiosity”.
Originally published in Spectrum,Winter 2008