Leader: The lure of the great wide open

Liberal arts study, with its long view of how humanity has met its trials, is touted as ideal for the 21st century - but it's a hard sell

December 23, 2010

It was a tale for our times. The two finalists in the BBC series The Apprentice competing to work for former enterprise tsar Lord Sugar were both in banking, but their educational paths stood in stark contrast to each other and would provide any young person contemplating pursuing a degree pause for thought.

Grammar-school educated Chris Bates had a first-class honours degree in theology from the University of Nottingham and considered intelligence to be his biggest strength, whereas eventual winner Stella English had a tough upbringing, left school at 16 with no qualifications and lived by her motto: "Never give up."

Take on an educational "investment" of about £30,000 or just take your chances? It can't be much fun advising today's 16-year-olds about going to university in 2012.

Higher education has in many places been seen as the servant of those making the money, with professions and industry demanding graduates tailored to their slots. Society needs specialists, but it also needs people who see the "bigger picture". The challenges the world faces require interdisciplinary thinking. Democracy thrives when a well-informed citizenry can make worthwhile contributions to a range of important debates. Advocates of a liberal arts education, the topic of our cover story, also argue that the best way to engage students is to focus on the most fundamental and most difficult questions of all: those exploring the central issues of human existence.

More prosaically, specialisation is not necessarily a better preparation for a career. If the best university courses produce graduates with excellent "transferable skills", why limit oneself to the study of a single subject? Lord Dearing noted the benefits of broad study in his 1997 report on higher education, citing employers' complaints that too many graduates were very specialised and unable to think outside the box. What's more, technically specialised jobs can disappear as quickly as they appear.

The value of classical breadth still seems to hold in the US, with which liberal arts education remains strongly associated. "Our country has embarked on an unparalleled experiment, inspired by...ideals of self-command and cultivated humanity," writes Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity (1997). "Unlike all other nations, we ask a higher education to contribute a general preparation for citizenship, not just a specialized preparation for a career."

The US, like the UK, is grappling with huge challenges, not least a massive budget deficit, but as Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian, says in the National Review Online, "America has lots of problems. A population immersed in and informed by literature, history, art, and music is not one of them."

The rest of the world is waking up to the benefits of a liberal arts training. David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College in California, has spent time in East Asia, where, he says, they are "recognising that narrow professional training goes a certain distance but in terms of really preparing innovative people who will be the entrepreneurs of the future, who will create whole new enterprises, a broader education has tremendous value".

In the Lord Sugar-inspired entrepreneurial UK, University College London plans to make a liberal arts programme its flagship degree. With tuition fees set to rise, that represents a new opportunity. Unfortunately, it will be a hard sell to the Stella Englishes of this world.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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