School of Athen by Raphael

Program Overview For Students Entering the Major or Minor

Goals of the Program

The normal, though not the only, entry-point to the Liberal Studies major and minor is LBST 250, which may also be taken as LBST 350. This is the first in a series of three 6-credit, semester-long, multidisciplinary core courses which, together with a related series of 3-credit companion courses, constitute the normal program of study for the BA Major in Liberal Studies offered by Vancouver Island University. LBST 250 is open to all students, LBST 350 to those who have successfully completed almost two years of university study. NOTE: Students who enroll in LBST 250 and who wish to major in Liberal Studies will need to take an additional 6 credits of upper level Liberal Studies courses.

The courses in the program focus on two interrelated goals: critical skills and integrated general education.

Critical Skills

  • reading a wide variety of challenging material with understanding;
  • thinking creatively and critically;
  • addressing complex issues precisely and cogently;
  • speaking and writing clearly and effectively;
  • working cooperatively and productively in groups.

To develop these skills, the program focuses on close reading and frequent discussion of important books and other materials from many fields in the arts and sciences. Seminars are the main method of instruction, and these provide practice in thinking quickly, supporting one's ideas with evidence, speaking in public, and working purposively with colleagues. These are all also important employment skills.

There is also a series of written assignments which encourage students to respond to their reading in a personal but informed way. Online resources are integrated into the program delivery.

Integrated General Education

The second goal of this program is to set a clear direction for the continuing development of a broad background in the arts and sciences. No program can offer an opportunity to learn everything we need to know. What a good program can do, however, is engage us in thoughtful consideration of some of the truly important issues and achievements of the culture in which we live, and thereby provide the confidence and impetus for a lifetime of further learning, appreciation and enjoyment.

We seek what every good liberal education seeks:  the understanding of a liberated, empowered mind, an understanding which results in better knowledge of ourselves, appreciation for others, and reasoned judgments about how we ought to live.

A Learning Community

Fundamental to both of the above goals is the creation of a thriving learning community in which students and professors work together in a variety of ways, with a particular emphasis on cooperative and useful discussion among all participants.

Class Activities: Core Courses

Liberal Studies involves a number of different types of educational activity, so that students with different learning styles will be able to develop both their understanding and a wide range of skills in a variety of contexts.


The lectures will have one or more of a number of purposes. These include: to initiate discussion of the readings; to provide some understanding of the context (historical, political, social or intellectual) in which the text was created; to relate a number of texts to a specific issue. The lectures are in no sense to be interpreted as giving the final word on any matter: they are food for thought, not declarations of fact to be digested and regurgitated.


The seminars allow students to discuss in depth their understandings of the readings of the day and the issues the latter raise. It is a good idea to come to the seminar having prepared a couple of focused questions about the text. Once discussion begins, the professor plays the same role as any other participant, except that s/he has a duty to ensure that discussion stays on topic and does not degenerate into anecdote, triviality or name-calling.

The following are primary assumptions of the Liberal Studies Program: 1) that students must be free to express their views without fear of intimidation from professors or peers, and 2) that it is the responsibility of all participants in a seminar, and not just of the professor, to maintain an atmosphere of respectful politeness in which sincere and serious discussion can flourish.

Remember that good participation is not merely a question of how much you say, but also of the value of what you say as a contribution to debate and shared understanding.

We expect participants to have done the necessary preparatory reading and to have spent time thinking about the issues it raises. It is important to make contributions which allow the group as a whole to stay focused on the topic of the discussion, to listen attentively and to respond effectively to what others have to say. Taking notes during seminars is discouraged: it is likely to interfere with your ability to follow what others are saying and to become involved in the discussion. You may jot down the odd reminder, but that is the limit.

Class Activities: Companion Courses

Each companion course is an exploration of selected topics. Through a variety of texts, in participatory seminars and hands-on activities, we investigate the enormously influential contributions of thinkers in various disciplines, including art, architecture, literature, philosophy, mathematics and science. We will also be interested in examining how these contributions have continuing relevance today.

Activities Outside Class

Department Colloquia

From time to time the Department will organize guest lectures and discussions on interesting themes which all students and faculty are encouraged to attend.

Special Events

The Department may also organize concerts, film nights and other events in which you may participate as audience-member, planner or performer.

The Escalation of Expectations

The Liberal Studies Major is a challenging program, and you will be expected to do significant work. The program calls for a high level of effort in reading, writing and thinking; it also demands a high level of performance, in terms both of quantity and quality. The payoff for the hard work thus entailed comes in the excitement of the learning process and the enhanced skills produced.

It is also to be expected that the demands will change as you progress through the program. Here we shall try to explain some of the ways in which more sophisticated skills are introduced as more basic ones are acquired.


Many courses contain a balance, which may change as you move from course to course, between ungraded work and graded work. The purpose of the former is to help you enhance your skills without penalty for initial lack of development; gradually, however, it becomes important to demonstrate that you have acquired the skills and can manifest them without a great amount of rehearsal. 

There is an overall increase in the level of depth required in all aspects of the program, such as reading, writing and seminar discussion. Likewise, you will be expected to become more self-reliant, to take more initiative in the direction of your education within the framework offered by the program. These kinds of changes in expectation are reflected in the detailed implementation of the program as follows:


The most obvious way in which the writing assignments change is in terms of length. 

In many courses you will begin with a number of weekly short written assignments, called seminar notes.  Additional essay writing takes place with much opportunity for revision: in the beginning courses the longest papers required are essays of approximately 1000 words; in many cases you will write multiple drafts before a final mark is assigned.

It is very important to keep in mind the goal of increasing the depth of your papers. The point of a longer assignment is not to force you merely to write more words, but to allow for a substantially deeper approach to the topic. One of the most prominent, though not the only, dimension of depth in a piece of writing is the extent to which the thesis, or main conclusion, is supported by sophisticated, reasoned arguments.

For advice on any aspects of your writing, consult your peers, your professors, the College Writing Centre and a writing manual such as Fit to Print or Essays and Arguments: A Handbook on Writing Argumentative and Interpretative Essays by Ian Johnston.


Different sorts of texts demand different sorts of reading, but in Liberal Studies all demand close attention to detail. As you approach the end of the program, it will be expected that you notice more about the texts you are reading, although they may be no more intrinsically difficult than those you encounter in the first month. For advice on reading, the reading manual How to Read a Book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, may be valuable (except of course for those who can't!).


At the beginning of the program the emphasis is very much on getting everyone involved in seminar discussions, and you will be expected to play your part in encouraging others to speak. The professors too will introduce activities aimed at increasing involvement. After the first semester, however, you will be expected to have overcome general hesitations about speaking up; if this is not so you should seek advice from your seminar professor. Similarly, any tendencies you have to monopolize the conversation should be eradicated as soon as possible.

The purpose of seminars in all semesters is careful, focused, critical and respectful conversation about issues raised by the reading. In later semesters, the standards by which this is judged are raised, so that more and more emphasis is placed on the quality of the discussion.

Critical Thinking

Despite its tendency to be used as somewhat of a buzzphrase, "critical thinking" refers to a real collection of mental processes and attitudes which it is the purpose of the program to enhance.

Because Liberal Studies is based on the assumption that mutual respect and tolerance for difference is essential to promoting understanding, it is easy to reach the conclusion that all opinions whatsoever are equally valuable, correct or true. This view, often called "subjectivism," is passionately held by many people - far more passionately, in fact, than could be appropriate if it were true, for then, of course, the opposite view would be equally true!

The alternative view which underlies the program agrees that it is essential to allow for the expression of a variety of opinions, but that it is possible to decide in many cases which opinion is more valuable, more correct or closer to the truth. Making this decision depends on the evaluation of arguments for and against differing opinions: it is rational to place more credence in opinions which are well-supported than in those which are not. This component of critical thinking is essential to success in the program.

Education and Change

Most students completing a degree experience profound changes during the process; Liberal Studies students are no different in this regard. Especially because you move through the program in the company of the same students and professors, there is a tendency for important life-issues to come to the surface, and to be reflected in your interaction with other members of the learning community. In the general atmosphere of critical learning, you may come to challenge some of the basic assumptions you have made about many aspects of life.

In the diversity of viewpoints on political and other matters, you may find conflict arising between your views and those of others, and it is even possible for such conflict to become personal. In a program which places demands on your time, effort and intellectual honesty, you may find yourself excited or bewildered by personal change.

Although the situation is not perhaps as dire as this warning suggests, experience shows that the warning is not without foundation. Be prepared to be challenged, and to change, and make use of the resources which are available to you as you negotiate change. Talk to others about your impressions of the program; do not be silent if there is something you need to say.

Your strongest support must come from other students in the program, who share many aspects of your own experience with you. A lively discussion about the ends and means of the program is one of its healthiest characteristics. The professors too are concerned to help you with any problems or issues you have of an educational or pedagogical nature. They are not, however, trained counsellors, and if you wish to seek help with issues of a more personal nature, you should contact the Counselling Department in Building 200.

Most important of all, you should keep firmly fixed in your mind the fact that education works best when there are as few limits as possible on the range of alternative understandings under consideration, and should try to be as tolerant as you can of the idiosyncrasies of others, as well as of your own. If, for example, you are a feminist whose views are challenged by other students, or a traditionalist whose views are challenged by feminism, you should try to use the opportunity as one for developing a deeper and more comprehensive justification for your own view, or for changing your mind. Intellectual tolerance and honesty require courage, but promise great rewards.

Bearing all this in mind (no easy task, we admit!), you are about to launch yourself into a great intellectual adventure. We recommend that you re-read these briefing notes at the start of each semester, to remind yourself of the theoretical geography of the journey you are undertaking. And we wish you every success in the challenging yet rewarding endeavours ahead!