Liberal arts, British style

Aaron Rosen on how the UK is improving on a US staple

July 18, 2013

Source: Elly Walton

This summer, a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences made afresh the case for the US’ 200-year-old model of liberal arts education.

It comes at a critical time as the humanities and social sciences are under attack as dispensable luxuries in a time of austerity. Congressmen and state legislators have strived to restrict funding for these disciplines under the dubious argument that it is better to study “useful” subjects such as economics and leave English literature for retirement.

In this inhospitable climate, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation argues that at its best, a curriculum that balances the humanities and social sciences alongside the so-called hard sciences “provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship”. Moreover, it asserts, good business itself demands the skills that the humanities can best cultivate: inventive, lateral and ethical thinking.

The Heart of the Matter notes with chagrin that at “the very moment when China and some European nations are seeking to replicate our model of broad education in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences - as a stimulus to innovation and a source of social cohesion - we are instead narrowing our focus and abandoning our sense of what education has been and should continue to be”.

This international surge is even more pronounced than the authors imagine. Here in the UK, liberal arts degrees have sprung up at University College London, King’s College London and the universities of Exeter, Winchester, Birmingham and Kent, with more in the works. These programmes draw clear inspiration from the US model, yet they are doing more than merely replicating it: they are also improving on it.

While the AAAS makes a compelling case for the overarching value of the liberal arts, it nonetheless neglects some of the major shortcomings of the current US system. As a student at Bowdoin College in Maine and the University of California, Berkeley, and later as a lecturer at Columbia and Yale universities - all phenomenal institutions - I witnessed these challenges at first hand.

First, colleges tend to share a similar, often indistinguishable, concept of what constitutes a good liberal arts education. Sometimes this is positive. Who would deny, for instance, that colleges should help produce informed citizens? What is worrying, however, is that in places where a liberal arts education is the dominant educational paradigm, its ambitions and strategies tend to calcify and homogenise.

By contrast, one of the most fascinating and welcome developments so far in the UK is that educators have been forced to justify and specify their pedagogical visions, leading to different interpretations of the liberal arts idea philosophically and structurally. This can be seen at a glance in degree titles: King’s offers a BA in liberal arts, Winchester a BA in modern liberal arts, UCL a bachelor’s of arts and sciences, and Exeter a BA and master’s in liberal arts.

Another advantage of the UK’s approach is a tendency to base liberal arts programmes around strong core curricula. While US liberal arts colleges consistently trumpet the interdisciplinarity of their curricula, they routinely struggle to get students to do more than dabble outside their main interests. Most have abandoned any requirement that students take elective courses that truly challenge their horizons, fearing that this would seem stodgy or encumbering. Some still mandate a certain number of credits outside students’ core areas but they often permit this requirement to be met with bastardised, user-friendly courses that merely dip their toes in the intellectual waters of their parent disciplines.

Recently, a biology major from an Ivy League university extolled to me the virtues of her interdisciplinary education. When asked what courses she had taken in the humanities, it eventually surfaced that she could remember only one: Introduction to Fairy Tales. For my part, I confess to satisfying a science requirement by taking Voyages of the Beagle.

Emphasising core modules has a further advantage. By reducing the number of electives students can choose, there is more pressure on universities to offer popular modules on fundamental topics, rather than the kind of research-driven, highly specialised courses that often dominate US offerings.

The chief danger of a liberal arts education is that it can become an enticing buffet of delicacies without enough staples. Fortunately, Britons have always loved their meat and potatoes.

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