Virginia Tech Magazine
Message from the President | Summer 2006

Enriching the undergraduate experience at Virginia Tech | Critical thinking and the liberal arts
by Charles Steger '69


At Virginia Tech, we take pride in educating the "whole student" through comprehensive learning and a unique residential experience. But what does that mean?

Virginia Tech graduates are respected for their excellent leadership skills, specialized education, and professional knowledge. We send into the workplace proficient business leaders, teachers, engineers, technologists, planners, ecologists, designers, and the like. But the world of knowledge evolves rapidly. For instance, a 1990 computer science graduate armed only with knowledge from the 1980s would be lost today, which is why, more than ever, colleges and universities must turn out critical thinkers -- people who can learn, process information, and make decisions in a rapidly changing world.

For centuries, the core of a balanced college education has been the liberal arts. Remember that the Latin root of liberal is liberalis, meaning "appropriate for free men." In this context, a liberal arts education provided the basic knowledge needed by the thinkers and leaders of society.

Today, America's largest higher education leadership organization, the prestigious Association of American Colleges and Universities, defines liberal education as "a philosophy of education that empowers individuals, liberates the mind from ignorance, and cultivates social responsibility; and is characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and [is] more of a way of studying than a specific course or field of study."

At Virginia Tech, we believe that liberal education can be achieved through this philosophy by integrating three broad categories: human culture and the natural world, which includes science, social science, mathematics, humanities, and arts; intellectual and practical skills, which include communications, inquiry, critical and creative thinking, quantitative and information literacy, and teamwork; and individual and social responsibility, which includes civic responsibility and engagement, ethical reasoning, intercultural knowledge, and lifelong learning.

Virginia Tech is renewing its commitment to liberal education and expanding it to fit the needs of the 21st-century student. Our newly formed University Center for Undergraduate Education will integrate the essential underpinnings of liberal education to complement the disciplinary competence learned by graduates in their field of major study. The new center will bring together liberal education, university studies, University Honors, special curricula, and faculty development to ensure that the many key components of an undergraduate education work in harmony.

The old Core Curriculum has been reconstituted as the Curriculum for Liberal Education, critically positioned at the center of "VT Pathways for Learning," a more cohesive approach to achieving a meaningful and connected liberal arts foundation. VT Pathways stitches together strong advising, integrated course sequences, and purposeful general education offerings across different disciplines.

Our University Honors program has pioneered many initiatives, including the development of a student-centered, comprehensive four-year study plan and undergraduate research opportunities, and we plan to expand such offerings to the undergraduate student body. We have found that students working alongside faculty in a bona fide research capacity develop the necessary critical thinking skills for the modern workplace. Research, after all, is just another mode of learning.

Nikki Giovanni and students
We also have had great success with our "teach the teachers" approach. In years past, we expanded the application of learning technologies by guiding the faculty in the use of computers and software; today, the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching helps the faculty to understand and design new teaching and learning models. In much the same way, we believe that combining faculty development programs with liberal and general education course work creates a richer and more meaningful learning environment for students.

A leading research university, Virginia Tech also stands out nationally for its strong emphasis on undergraduate education. Our graduates of the 21st century must be equipped with both an excellent disciplinary understanding of their chosen professions and the critical-thinking tools afforded by a rich liberal arts education.

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