From where I sit - Blessed with intellectual roots

October 11, 2012

Nine years ago, when I started teaching at the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA) in Berlin - ECLA of Bard since its merger with Bard College last year - I thought I had landed on the moon (I let the reader decide on which side). Having studied modern languages in Italy and done a PhD in English literature at the University of Reading, the concept of a liberal arts college was to me both alien and yet, in a way, incredibly familiar.

Indeed, when I talk to colleagues about our institution and our BA programme in value studies, I initially have to do a lot of explaining because liberal arts universities are mostly an American phenomenon. The title of our degree, too, often requires special attention. In essence, I always tell people, it is an interdisciplinary degree in the humanities that also allows students to specialise in literature, art history, aesthetics, politics or philosophy.

What seems to most surprise people - students and colleagues alike - is that each year all our students, regardless of whether they stay for just a semester or for the entire four-year BA programme, are required to take, in addition to courses in the relevant disciplines, two compulsory foundational interdisciplinary core courses in intellectual history. The core element is structured chronologically: it begins with ancient philosophy, literature, mathematics and culture, and ends with modernism in the early 20th century.

Although it might seem daunting, teaching in such a programme is extremely interesting and rewarding. Admittedly, staff must do a great deal more work than they would in a traditional setting in which students take courses in a specific discipline. But there is a pay-off: when it comes to teaching, literature in my case, I can take for granted that students will have a solid knowledge of the history of ideas and will be well aware of the critical and methodological issues of a few different disciplines. This is a real blessing: class discussion is lively because students tend to keep an open mind, can deal productively and seriously with different material, and are eager to learn more.

Some students might still question why they need to know the history of political economy or how to analyse paintings while they study literature (or why they should learn to close-read fiction when they want to learn about important political issues), but ultimately the majority enjoy being able to see the broader picture and relish the intellectual freedom and solid preparation that such foundational work gives them. (Both those last two things are, I think, mostly absent from traditional "great books programmes" run in many US liberal arts institutions.)

When I studied for my first degree in modern languages at the University of Milan, my study programme was based on similar premises but I was not aware of the existence of such a tradition in other countries. Having gone through a humanities-orientated high school system, generations of Italians had taken such an approach (with all its advantages and shortcomings) for granted. Since then, European universities have moved steadily towards the compartmentalisation of disciplines and ever more specialisation, thus making a broadly based education difficult to justify. And yet, talking to colleagues across the Continent, and considering recent developments such as the reintroduction of the Studium Generale in some German universities and the opening of a small number of liberal arts colleges in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, it seems that a broad and thorough intellectual training is once again becoming a much-coveted aim. And I don't think it's just a matter of nostalgia.

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