The tradition of the liberal arts reaches back into classical antiquity. Training the mind through the study of languages, literature, history, culture, society, mathematics, science, the arts and philosophy has for centuries been the favored approach in Europe and America for educating leaders. It is a general training, not intended as a preparation for any one profession.
In the 19th century the liberal arts were characterized as providing "the discipline and furniture of the mind: expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge," to which was added, "The former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two." At many liberal arts colleges today this ideal is understood as implying both breadth and depth in each student’s course of studies, as well as the acquisition of crucial skills in writing, public speaking and quantitative reasoning.
From its founding in 1871 Smith has taken a progressive, expansive and student-oriented view of its role as a liberal arts college. To the studies of the humanities and sciences the college early added courses in art and music, a substantial innovation for its time. In the same spirit the faculty has continued to integrate the new and the old, respecting all the while the individual needs of, and differences among, its students. As an early dean of the faculty wrote, it "is always the problem of education, to secure the proper amount of system and the due proportion of individual liberty, to give discipline to the impulsive and wayward and largeness of opportunity to those who will make good use of it."
In the spirit of "individual liberty [and] largeness of opportunity" Smith College has since 1970 had no distribution requirements for graduation. In the interest of "discipline" each student must complete a major, to give depth to her studies, while to guarantee breadth she must take at least 64 credits outside the department or program of her major. As for "system," the college assigns each beginning student a faculty member as academic adviser; each student later chooses a major adviser. Students, in consultation with their advisers, are expected to select a curriculum that has both breadth and depth, engages with cultures other than their own, and develops critical skills in writing, public speaking, and quantitative reasoning.