Could an American liberal arts approach improve the British higher education system?

The flexible and intersectional education format would better prepare 21st-century students than a single course of study, argues William G. Durden 

May 24, 2019
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As an American, I have been immersed in the liberal arts all my life, so I’m always surprised when I am asked by colleagues in the UK about its benefits, and how it could improve British higher education.

The breadth of a US liberal arts education is truly remarkable. Generally a four-year programme for undergraduates, it encompasses studies in the humanities, arts and sciences and increasingly emphasises the interaction of disciplines to prepare students for ever-changing life and work.   

The UK understanding of liberal arts is arguably restricted to the humanities and does not include the sciences, thus limiting the flexibility of thought that comes from mixing academic disciplines often thought mutually exclusive. 

Not only that, but the focus in UK universities upon a single course of study for the majority of degree programmes excludes exposure to various areas of knowledge and ways of thinking that could advance innovative and creative thinking. 

Additionally, the out-of-class experiences – including experiential, community service and team (cooperative) learning – are thought invaluable to a liberal arts education and are, therefore, structured to complement formal academic instruction. They intentionally introduce intangible learning objectives – such as asking questions of diverse audiences, listening well and teamwork – that are indispensable in life and work. 

And while it is mistakenly thought that a liberal arts education is impractical – even in the US the question “What do literature, philosophy, etc., have to do with a job?” comes up – it was interpreted after the American War of Independence to be eminently practical for providing the knowledge and skills that at the time would contribute to building a new nation and arguably today, prepare a life that can navigate longevity and an ever-changing job market. 

Flexibility is a big plus factor for a US liberal arts approach. A British international relations BA student at Richmond, The American International University in London told me, “A liberal arts degree allowed me the freedom to fine-tune my degree to what I wanted to get out of it rather than be set on a course that I wasn’t 100 per cent sure of. 

“During my studies, I was able to take courses that otherwise would have been unavailable to me yet still managed to build upon my degree and expand my understanding of the international system and its history.”

In the best of circumstances, an American liberal arts education, regardless of profession and life path, focuses on how to ask the right questions; how to gather information from various sources for a purpose; how to make informed decisions; how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge; and how to see what others never see because of their narrower perspective.

It also teaches students how to learn quickly the basics of a profession or life situation; where to go for more information; how to discern valid information from that which is false or misleading; and how to apply past knowledge to understanding and sometimes solve contemporary challenges. 

In their provocative 2016 book, The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, London Business School professors Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue that some people believe the inevitability of a 100-year lifespan and the related necessity of a flexible, multi-stage life plan to replace the rigidly linear, three-stage concept of a life – education, work, retirement – associated with a shorter lifespan, will render “an updated form of liberal arts…surprisingly valuable”. 

They associate the liberal arts with “the importance of human and emphatic skills and the focus on creativity and innovation” – all essential for a life of constant re-creation. 

And while the UK might benefit by adopting a US liberal arts approach to education, the US might well profit by adapting the ways in which UK institutions explore the depths and dimensions of various courses of study so as not to offer superficial instruction when so many subject areas are covered in an undergraduate education, as in the US.

In fact, comparison of the two systems of education to yield a better overall education for future students is a superb example of a liberal education at its best – bringing together disparate practice and understanding to yield something new and relevant.  

William G. Durden is a trustee at Richmond, The American International University in London, president of the International University Alliance, a joint appointment professor (research) in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University and president emeritus at Dickinson College


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Reader's comments (1)

One of the big differences between the US system and the UK system is the higher prevalence of grad school in the US system. For example, in the UK a student can do a 3 year Bachelor's and (in theory) a 3 year PhD and be a Dr. by the time they are 24. The american system requires a much longer time in grad school, with at least some of that involving taking classes. I'm not saying one is better than the other, and I have a lot of time for arguments on the superiority of studying broadly, and then spending 6 years in grad school, but it would mean a big change in culture, particularly grad school funding.