Forget single honours, forget joint honours, the liberal arts are back
This article first appeared in The Telegraph, 12 July 2016
The way we educate our children changes with each generation. Comprehensive schools have come and gone. Grammar schools have come and largely gone. Free schools are here for now but are entirely dependent on the way the political winds are blowing.
Curriculum models have a similar attrition rate. The School Certificate is no more. An education in the classics is all but over. O-levels were replaced by GCSEs which are now themselves in flux, as are the A-levels they lead to.
But what of the liberal arts?
Born in the Classical world and brought to maturity in the Christian West, the Liberal Arts grew into middle age across North America. But rather than slip gracefully into retirement, the liberal arts have rediscovered the vigour of their youth.
Liberal arts degrees have been popping up all over the UK. At universities from Aberystwyth to Winchester, students are turning their backs on what is seen to be narrow specialisation and are embracing the breadth of interdisciplinary degrees. The overall content of courses varies enormously. To take just three examples from London, SOAS has created a global liberal arts degree, King’s College offers a liberal arts degree grounded in the arts and humanities, and UCL has an arts and sciences degree.
These degrees often have compulsory core modules which can range from ‘Lives of London’ at King’s College London, to ‘Body and Culture’ at Exeter. In the USA these core requirements are sometimes a more significant part of the degree. At Boston College, for instance, all students are required to take courses in arts, cultural diversity, history, literature, mathematics, natural science, philosophy, social science, theology, and writing.
There are new institutions entering the market too. Benedictus, the organisation which hosted an international conference of liberal arts educators in Oxford last week, currently focuses on providing short courses but plans to offer full-length degrees in the future.
If we look globally – as students are increasingly doing – then we find even more options. New institutions like Ralston College in the US and Campion College in Australia are joining the ranks of more established colleges such as Wellesley and Amherst to offer an education in the liberal arts tradition reinvented for the 21st Century.
In his recent book, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? Mark Roche of the University of Notre Dame gives three overlapping arguments for a liberal arts education: “its intrinsic value, or the distinction of learning for its own sake“, “the cultivation of those intellectual virtues that are requisite for success beyond the academy” and “character formation and the development of a sense of vocation, the connection to a higher purpose or calling“.
There are also more prosaic reasons for choosing a liberal arts degree. For IB students, they are a natural progression. For A-level students who struggle to fit their interests into a mere three or four subjects, the liberal arts will also be attractive. The course should not, however, be thought of as a degree for those who cannot make up their minds. If you are writing a personal statement, it is the interconnectedness of knowledge that you should be emphasising. What is it that links your studies and your extra-curricular reading? How has one subject shed light on another? What would you like to study that the curriculum has kept from you so far?
The message is clear. If you want to study more than one or two subjects at university then there are many great options available for you, but you need to look very closely at what each course offers. The good news is that research pays off and with so many options available, you will be sure to find the perfect fit.
As Nigel Tubbs, programme leader for modern liberal arts at the University of Winchester, points out to prospective students: Liberal Arts degrees need no apology since it is single-subject degrees that are “the new kids on the block”.
As he puts it: “We were here in 400BC.”
Five British liberal arts degrees
- University of Bristol – Liberal Arts
- Durham University – Liberal Arts
- University of Leeds – Liberal Arts
- SOAS, University of London – Global Liberal Arts
- University of Winchester – Modern Liberal Arts
Roy Peachey, Head of higher education and careers, Woldingham School