It's the breadth that matters

Liberal arts degrees are appearing in the UK and arousing much interest. Protagonists claim that the wide-ranging education provides more rounded individuals who are better prepared for modern employment. Rebecca Attwood writes

December 23, 2010

Nigel Tubbs, professor of philosophical and educational thought at the University of Winchester, has encountered a few false impressions when promoting his university's new degree in modern liberal arts.

One prospective student, confusing liberal arts with creative arts, thought that taking a liberal arts degree must mean that "you dance a lot".

So, on open days and when visiting sixth forms, Tubbs tries to raise interest in the degree, which imparts general knowledge and develops intellectual skills rather than specialising in one subject. Good tactics, he has found, are asking prospective students if they have found that their own world view doesn't fit neatly into any of the subjects they are studying; and asserting that degrees that focus on just one subject are "the new kids on the block".

"We were here in 400BC," he tells them.

Many of the students' parents have told Tubbs they wish that they had had the chance to take such a wide-ranging programme, which spans disciplines from art and music to politics, mathematics and cosmology.

Liberal arts is deeply embedded in US higher education, but until recently, there was no equivalent offering from any English university. Last year, Winchester became the first, announcing plans to run, from 2010, a BA that aims to retrieve and update the oldest university curriculum in European higher education.

Some months later a very different institution, the large and research-intensive University College London, declared that it would follow suit.

Other UK institutions, meanwhile, including the universities of Warwick and Southampton, have revealed plans to broaden their degrees - breadth being a characteristic that is strongly associated with a liberal arts education and one that stands in contrast to England's predominantly highly specialised degrees.

It seems that they are not alone in waking up to the value of a liberal arts education. US institutions are reporting increasing global interest in the model.

At the same time, however, some commentators argue that, in the US itself, the liberal arts are under threat. One claim is that liberal arts courses are not always the "real thing", with creeping vocationalism pulling some institutions away from the teaching of the arts and sciences. Others have observed that a smaller proportion of US undergraduate degrees are now awarded in liberal arts disciplines than was once the case - in 1970-71, 50 per cent of the majors at colleges and universities were in the liberal arts, but that has dropped to about 40 per cent - and that most undergraduates now opt for vocational subjects.

But advocates of a liberal arts education say that it is the best possible preparation for employment.

"When we think about likely career paths that our students will take, the life paths, the vast majority of them will go through multiple jobs, life and career directions," says Gregory Call, dean of the faculty at Amherst College in Massachusetts, a top-ranking US liberal arts college. "A liberal arts education gives students exposure to a broad range of fields. They learn how to work both independently and in groups, how to write well, how to analyse arguments. This should be better preparation for that kind of multiple career path."

David Oxtoby, president of Pomona College in California, agrees. "Narrow training that prepares you for one particular career just doesn't work any more," he says.

But a liberal arts degree is also good for society, he believes. "The broader benefit is preparing educated citizens, people who will take an active part in society, who will be intelligent voters, who can read a newspaper, understand the issues and be part of an educated electorate."

The financial crisis has prompted some in the US to argue that, in tough times, education should prepare people for their first job out of college. Oxtoby calls this "misguided".

"People talk about China and India preparing all these scientists and engineers. They say, 'Let's get back to basics, let's just prepare people for a particular job.'

"But one of the things we've learned in this latest crisis is that no job is secure. What you really need is to be flexible. You may need to move into a job that you haven't had before or that didn't exist when you graduated from college. For me, this is a strong argument for a liberal arts education."

The irony is that while the numbers majoring in vocational subjects in the US grow, other countries are looking to learn from its liberal arts programmes.

"I've spent time in Hong Kong, Singapore and China," Oxtoby says. "Each place is 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 and who will create whole new enterprises, a broader education has tremendous value. They are looking at the American model."

Liberal arts education in the US has also come under attack for being "elitist". It certainly can be pricey. The small, private Sarah Lawrence College in New York is reputedly America's most expensive college, with fees of $56,934 (£36,508) a year. It has a student-to-faculty ratio of nine to one. However, 61 per cent of its undergraduates receive some form of financial aid.

But Oxtoby, who is chairman of the board of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, believes that a liberal arts education "is for everyone". In the US, he says, it is delivered by many different types of institutions. He gives the example of Miami Dade College, in Miami, Florida, one of the largest colleges in the country with more than 170,000 students, compared with just 1,500 students at his own, Pomona.

Despite its size, Miami Dade "really brings in a lot of the principles of liberal education, in terms of breadth of study, engaged learning, getting students moving outside of 'comfort' areas and engaged in research", says Oxtoby. "If you can do that there, I think you can do it just about anywhere."

Northern Ireland's St Mary's University College (part of Queen's University Belfast) has run a BA in the liberal arts for the past 10 years. Although he does not put it so impolitely, Feidhlimidh Magennis, chair of the liberal arts programme team, clearly wonders why it has taken everyone else so long to see the benefits.

Back in 1997, the Dearing Report on higher education recommended that all higher education institutions work to achieve "a better balance between breadth and depth across programmes than currently exists".

"We believe that, while many students will continue to welcome the opportunity to pursue a relatively narrow field of knowledge in great depth, there will be many others for whom this will be neither attractive, nor useful in future career terms, nor suitable," the Dearing Report said. "In a world that changes rapidly, the nation will need people with broad perspectives."

Employers, it said, need both specialists and generalists.

Spurred on by Dearing - which was in turn picking up on a theme in the 1963 Robbins Report - and by its new university college status, St Mary's began to draw up plans for a liberal arts degree in the late 1990s. It was a teacher-training institution at the time, but with its new title came permission to diversify.

"A number of us in the college had always said that the liberal arts model was the route for us," says Magennis.

He visited the US to learn more about American models. Some of what he saw bore, ostensibly, little relation to a small teacher-training college in Northern Ireland.

He recalls a visit to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, an institution Magennis describes as "the glories of Oxford on the American prairies". Walking up through the main quadrangle, Magennis remarked on the splendour of the grounds. "Oh yes," his host replied. "We spend about $1 million a year just cutting the grass."

But not all the institutions he visited had such wealth, and Magennis returned convinced that St Mary's could offer a successful liberal arts course. Today it accepts more than 100 students a year on to the degree.

The foundation programme of the interdisciplinary degree is human development studies, a course centred on "the philosophy of liberal education and the development of the human person", says Magennis. Students "explore what the human condition is all about" via a programme that involves philosophy, politics and economics.

The second programme is Ireland and Europe, a theme that recognises that "the human condition is lived in a real context". This involves geography, history, politics, economics, art and music.

The two themes run in parallel across the three years and alongside this, students study one specialism and undertake a work placement.

"If you are going to pull together what we did - a themed multidisciplinary approach - you have to pull together different people from different backgrounds," says Magennis. "It worked at St Mary's for the simple reason that we are small."

In contrast to US accusations of elitism, St Mary's has found its BA a good vehicle for broadening participation.

"The liberal arts has actually proven to be very successful in appealing to a wider audience," says Magennis. Students from under-represented communities may be "less sure of what they want to do. Often they have thought of university but are daunted by the idea of something too specialist."

Supporters of liberal arts education argue that one of the best ways to engage students from all backgrounds is to encourage them to ask and explore the "big" questions. In a recent book, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010), Marc William Roche, professor of German language and literature and concurrent professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, writes that, "through the liberal arts, students explore profound and evocative questions, engaging issues that appeal to their curiosity and desire for knowledge and deepening the restless urge to see how ideas fit together and relate to life". Such questions "naturally form themselves in the minds of young persons", he argues.

But Tubbs believes they are sadly neglected by a traditional English university education. "It still seems inconceivable to me that at university you can't ask the questions 'why am I here?' and 'what should I do?'. I remember going to university and thinking that would be all we'd talk about. I was disappointed."

When Tubbs was designing Winchester's liberal arts programme, he too examined US models of liberal arts education. But he found that, when it came to what happened in the classroom, in many colleges teaching was still broken down into subjects.

"I haven't found many people doing the liberal arts as they were conceived to begin with. That's what we are really trying to get back to," says Tubbs.

Liberal arts education, he explains, can be traced back to Aristotle and Pythagoras in ancient Greece. In medieval Europe, the liberal arts were organised around logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, music, geometry and astronomy.

"We're trying to get back to the ancient and medieval vision. What's the world about? How did it get to be here? We are giving students the chance to ask the big questions and the time to think about them."

The Winchester course began just a few months ago with an intake of 15, a number Tubbs says is perfect for the small-group teaching the programme depends on. Initially, it is running as one half of a joint honours programme, but the BA will be offered as a single honours programme from next year.

Teaching the first few months of the course has reinforced Tubbs' belief that subject disciplines are too restrictive and that students should be encouraged to explore the interdisciplinary questions that interest them.

"A student said to me recently that for her first presentation she wanted to think about the Holocaust. We didn't have a conversation that went around subject labels at all. Instead I let her ask the questions that interested her and pointed her in different directions to different books," says Tubbs.

"We tell students that we can release their questions out into the wild."

The course has an emphasis on oral communication and rhetoric as well as writing, and is assessed through a combination of written essays and oral presentations.

Already, students' self-confidence has blossomed, says Tubbs.

The programme, he believes, will result in graduates who can write well, who are articulate and who understand "the bigger picture". This, he says, is what employers want, but it is also crucially important for wider society.

"Formal education has moved away from the idea that there is a bigger picture. Everything has become fragmented. If we can get the bigger picture back, society will have a better understanding of itself."

UCL, meanwhile, sees its liberal arts degree as part of its commitment to "global citizenship". Michael Worton, UCL's vice-provost academic and international, says it will be the institution's flagship degree. It will be "pitched at the best students, those who see themselves as wanting a leadership position".

Although the title of the course is yet to be finalised, it is likely to be called a bachelor of arts and sciences, addressing the common misconception that the liberal arts take in only humanities subjects. To be accepted, students will have to have a qualification in both a science and an arts subject. Every student accepted will also study a foreign language in every year of their degree, and students will be encouraged to spend a year abroad. It "certainly will not be an easy option", Worton says.

One half of the programme will be made up of a set of core courses. These will include a module on the foundations of knowledge and a project based around an object, the latter being an idea designed to take advantage of UCL's museums and collections.

The other half of the degree will allow students to major and minor in two of four pathways, likely to be called "cultures", "societies", "sciences and engineering" and "health". The intake will start at about 60 students a year and will grow from that, potentially to several hundred students.

UCL has been examining curriculum developments around the world.

"We have been looking at the kinds of degrees that are fit for purpose in a 21st-century context," says Worton. "Our students come from all around the world and we need to be thinking globally."

Not everyone believes that broader degree courses fit the bill.

Philip Cox, head of the department of English and creative writing at De Montfort University, thinks there is a danger that very broad courses can become too general and unfocused. They can also impose a "potentially restrictive theoretical framework in order to provide cohesion between disparate subject areas", he says.

Sean Allan, from the department of German studies at the University of Warwick, cites another potential drawback. It can be difficult for students on multidisciplinary courses to gain a deep understanding of "the historical context in which certain cultural phenomena are embedded" and build the linguistic skills necessary to access primary and secondary material in the original language. "Such in-depth understanding can only be delivered by single-subject disciplines," he says.

Worton says the answer is to give students access to both options. "If you want to be an engineer, the best way to become an engineer is to do an engineering degree. But if you want to be a leader of engineering, then you may be better off doing a degree that will expand your horizons," he explains.

With the introduction of higher tuition fees in England imminent, a new argument is emerging for a liberal arts education.

"As students start to pay more, they will want more," points out Winchester's Tubbs. He questions whether specific subjects can give them that.

Worton has made the same connection. At UCL, significant effort has gone into creating a programme he believes will meet the needs of students, employers and governments. Under a new fee regime, "one of the things we will have to be sure of is that we are offering value for money", says Worton. "This degree already ticks all the boxes."


The liberal art of nation-building

A liberal arts education will help to strengthen the state of Israel, according to a think tank that plans to open Israel's first liberal arts college.

Jerusalem's Shalem Center is an influential research centre dedicated to the study of Zionist and Jewish history, philosophy, political theory, the Bible and the Talmud.

Its scholars have close links to government - Michael Oren, who was a distinguished Fellow, is now Israel's ambassador to the US, and Moshe Ya'alon, the former chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces, is now Israel's vice-prime minister and minister for strategic affairs.

The centre runs a publishing house and produces the largest-circulation general-interest journal in Israel.

Now it is aiming to expand its work by educating the Israeli leaders of the future at Shalem College, which is due to open in 2012.

This week, the Shalem Center announced that Suzanne Last Stone, director of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, is to take leave of absence to head the liberal studies department. She will be responsible for the college's core liberal arts curriculum. The chair is endowed with a $2 million donation.

The Shalem Center, which is considered to be on the centre-right of Israeli politics, argues that although the country's higher education system prepares young people well for careers, it neglects the humanities and exposure to the great ideas of the Jewish people.

Its four-year BA degree - a year longer than most degrees in Israel - will attempt to redress the balance by introducing a new US-style model that will focus on the humanities and be aimed at the best students.

The core curriculum will include the study of the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, Greek philosophy, economics and history.

"I think it is extremely important to have a broad-based education in the classics of Western civilisation and, in the case of Israel, also in the classics of Jewish thought, to create an active, informed citizenry and a community of leaders," Stone told Times Higher Education.

Students will be able to choose to major in either philosophy, political theory and religion - a programme that will explore both the Western philosophical tradition and classical Jewish sources - or Middle East and Islamic studies.

The Shalem Center, founded by a group of Princeton graduates, hopes to replicate that university's environment of small-group undergraduate tutorials and to eventually grow to an institution of 1,000 students.

Stone, also educated at Princeton, describes her move as natural. "I am a graduate of Princeton and I experienced first hand what that sort of education is like, how much it shapes you. For nearly 30 years, I've been associated with the Yeshiva University, which has a very strong sense of melding together the best of Western and Jewish tradition.

"In the past decade, I've become an institution builder by building a centre in Jewish law."

She adds that she has always explored the subject through the lens of the humanities. "The next step really is to contribute far more directly to Israeli society by laying a new intellectual infrastructure. I am really deeply excited about it."

She argues that a liberal arts education will foster a strong but open democracy, a culture of "vigorous but respectful" debate, and the "solid and visionary" leadership that Israel requires.

"To evaluate events that are shifting at every moment in the region, Israel also requires a deep knowledge of the past," she says.

"I think the timing is right for this. Israeli society is shifting. The young are at a stage in life where, despite having to do army service usually before they start college, they are ready to take on a few intensive years in which they devote themselves to this sort of education in preparation for contributing to the public good."

Daniel Gordis, the Shalem Center's senior vice-president, has spoken of the aim of creating a "college in the service of the nation", arguing that a liberal arts college is desperately needed in order to cultivate "young people prepared to speak constructively about Jewish sovereignty, its challenges, its failures and its future".

The college, which will be funded via private sources, will be spearheaded by the controversial scholar Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (2001). He has said that the college will not become "yet another home for scholars who have made their reputations by negating the Zionist and Israeli narrative".

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