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A Guide to Liberal Education Programmes


Many prospective students will have heard the phrase 'liberal arts' before, but this is just one of several terms that is used in a variety of ways in different educational and cultural contexts. Here, our Director of Student Experience Dr Gavin Schwartz-Leeper will break down the differences between these programmes and help you to make an informed choice about what programme will suit you best.

What is liberal education?

A liberal education is one that exposes students to a broad range of intellectual approaches and content, and prioritizes critical thinking and problem-solving over content acquisition. The first thing to note is the title, 'liberal arts'. It does not mean a programme focused only on the 'arts' (that is, a collection of subjects generally associated with the humanities). It derives from the classical and medieval collection of subjects known as artes liberalis: the knowledge worthy of a free person. There’s a number of philosophical arguments to make here, but the essential idea is that freedom only exists when you are able to recognize alternatives (and choose between them), and that a free society relies on the conscious choice of its people to participate in particular structures. What knowledge and skills do you need to be a critically-engaged citizen? That is a more complicated question! The overly simple answer is: critical thinking. Most liberal education programmes are acknowledged to be excellent incubators for the development of critical thinking skills, as students are required to analyse and criticise a range of concepts and materials. This serves them well in their professional and intellectual lives, as they are able to approach new ideas and situations with confidence and capability. Liberal arts graduates tend to seek out roles where they can make new interventions, whether that be in technology, politics, charity work, academia, or a traditional profession.

A very brief history of liberal education

Liberal education is not new in the UK. It is one of the oldest forms of education, and was the primary educational structure at the great medieval universities across Europe. Traditionally, there are seven subjects that made up the liberal arts: the trivium of humanities (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and the ‘scientific’ quadrivium (astronomy/astrology, music, geometry, and arithmetic). Taken collectively, these seven 'artes' contributed to the overarching art, philosophy. In the nineteenth century, European universities gradually shifted to a more focused approach: degrees were awarded to recognize levels of achievement in specific subjects, marking the graduate as capable of entering (or teaching) a particular profession (e.g. law, medicine, engineering, education, etc.). The liberal arts still form the basis of primary and secondary education at most schools, but the universities became training grounds for limited numbers of professions. While there have been some notable examples of liberal education in Europe in more recent decades, there has been a renewed interest in the benefits of this educational philosophy growing over the past ten years. This has many contributory causes, but many institutions are responding to employability concerns: more and more people are attending universities, and as competition grows for limited spaces employers are recognizing that graduates with broad skills and flexible approaches can be more valuable than specialists. Programmes began to appear in the Netherlands and subsequently in Germany, Lithuania, the UK, and throughout Europe. There has been substantial interest outside Europe as well: China and India have witnessed a proliferation of domestic liberal education programmes and increasing numbers of students have been venturing abroad for liberal arts programmes. The University of Warwick is working with colleagues across the UK and Europe to define a new, ‘European’ approach to liberal education. Together with the diverse offerings in the US, liberal education programmes now offer opportunities to students with a wide range of goals, skills, and backgrounds.

Types of liberal education programmes

There are a variety of ways this educational method has been interpreted, especially in the United States. There are a number of reasons why the US has embraced liberal education, many of which derive from some of the neoclassical ideals espoused by that nation’s founders. At heart, it’s about a citizenry that is educated enough not just to offer up capable candidates for public office, but also is able to act as a check on government figures. It’s about educating citizens for a highly participatory civic system, and that’s the philosophy that has driven the development of Liberal Arts at Warwick. Our programme is designed to produce graduates that can move beyond the expertise they’ve previously developed to tackle new ideas and problems with confidence and diverse capabilities. You may have come across programmes described as ‘liberal arts and sciences’, ‘liberal studies’, or even ‘general studies’. These all have similar aspirations, but may differ in their structures or focus. Generally speaking, a ‘liberal arts’ programme will not be restricted to the humanities and will involve at least some science and mathematics (again, ‘art’ in this case meaning skill or knowledge, rather than in the sense of ‘fine art’). Some of the general types are as follows:

‘American-style’ approaches

Many American liberal arts programmes are described as ‘great books’ programmes. These are traditionally delivered at small residential colleges, where students focus on individual critical interpretations of major texts and on personal development. Most classes will be conducted as small-group seminars, where a teacher leads a group of students in a discussion of a primary text. Emphasis is placed on the individual students to interpret the source text, rather than on the assemblage or analysis of scholarly material of that particular text. These courses tend to have a philosophical core that is taught in required seminars in the first year; students subsequently declare a ‘major’ (and possibly a ‘minor’) interest and take more specialised classes in that area. Students who attend these institutions often are drawn to the small class sizes, close contact with teaching-focused staff, and the strong sense of community. There are many examples, but a selection of colleges with very different approaches include St. John’s College, Pomona College, Amherst College, Bard College, and many more. Other programmes have alternative structures that tend to focus on themes: some, like the Global Liberal Studies programme at New York University, are characterised as ‘global’ (with a strong focus on cultural literacy and graduate movement), while others may place social justice and engagement at the centre of their programmes (some of these, like those found at Boston College, may have a philosophical or religious connection). These are often—but not exclusively—found within larger research-oriented universities. Students here can benefit from the resources and reputations of a larger institution while still enjoying small class sizes and flexible programmes.

European approaches

As I’ve mentioned above, there have been a wave of new liberal education programmes appearing in Europe over the past few years. It’s clear that this is in part due to social and economic factors arising from the ‘great recession’. The University of Warwick is at the forefront of developing this new European sense of liberal education. This approach is typified by critical approaches to skills development, and often features a more structured programme than those found in the US. While students are usually able to focus on themes or subjects of interest to them (like the ‘pathways’ you’ll find at Warwick), there tends to be more focus on the conscious cultivation of critical thinking and leadership skills.

In the UK

While many individual institutions have long incorporated aspects of the liberal education approach, recently a number of leading Russell Group (research-intensive) universities have set up liberal education degree programmes. What unites them is a shared commitment to research-led teaching: experts from a wide range of academic fields work with these students in traditional departments and in programme-specific contexts. There is a lot of variation beyond this, however, and it’s essential that you understand these differences: they will have a big impact! Some programmes allow you to take classes from across the entire university right from the beginning; these programmes may reward students who are looking for opportunities to try many different things. Other programmes are more structured and will benefit students who want more guidance or are already drawn to a particular area of inquiry.

What should I look for?

First, you should recognize that different programmes are designed to appeal to (and benefit) different types of students. While we believe very strongly in our approach at Liberal Arts at Warwick, it has to feel right for you. So, how do you know if it’s right for you?

Where will you spend your time? Some students will prefer to make their own way through their course, trying different things or selecting individual opportunities as they arise. Others will benefit from a closer-knit community of learners, and may want to join a programme with dedicated teaching and administrative staff, communal facilities, and a strong sense of cohort identity. There’s a balance to be struck between flexibility and support, so think about the elements you would prefer to be present and find a course that matches.

Who will teach you? How do they teach? Are your lecturers based permanently in a liberal arts department, or are they visiting from other departments? Or are they entirely based in other departments? You may benefit from a range of teaching styles in several departments, but some students report feeling lost or unable to make sense of all their experiences in large research universities without a home department. Teaching staff brought in for specific modules may be wonderful and can give you authoritative material, but if they’re based in other departments they may only teach in liberal arts for a year or two before returning to their normal teaching and research duties. The same can be said for teaching methods: if you spend most of your time moving between two large Economics and History departments, you may spend a lot of time in lecture halls (naturally, this can be a good thing, as it may allow you to hear from celebrated scholars). Smaller programmes tend to focus more on student-led styles requiring more close contact between students and teachers.

What do you want to do after graduation? This seems like an awful question to think about when you’ve only just started getting a grip on your university choices, but it’s an important one. If you’re entirely unsure, you might benefit from a very flexible programme that allows you to focus on personal development. If you think you might want to pursue a range of professional options, look for programmes that embed skills development within the programme itself. Every university will offer skills courses that tell you how to write a CV, or enable you to take up summer internships. A great university will teach you professional skills in the course itself, so you don’t have to sacrifice academic content or rigour. If you are thinking about postgraduate education (or a profession that relies on independent inquiry), look for courses that place a strong emphasis on undergraduate research. Many honours courses require a dissertation, but it’s a fairly limited exercise at the end of your programme (often a slightly longer than usual essay). Look for a programme that requires individual and group research throughout the degree, and that offers research training from the beginning. These courses will be the ones that allow you to bring your own interests into any module, so you’re not stuck writing essays about something totally irrelevant to your goals.

Disciplinary studies, interdisciplinary studies, and transdisciplinary studies

You could be forgiven for feeling a little confused about some of the terminology used to describe courses (and the research that feeds into them). Many traditional single-discipline courses (e.g., English Literature, Classics, Sociology, etc.) are described as incorporating 'interdisciplinary' research, or allow for interdisciplinary options (including dual honours programmes). This means that while you will focus on the methods of literary criticism in an English literature course (for example), you may also learn how to use methodologies developed by historians to discuss Renaissance poetry. This is interdisciplinarity: when two or more disciplines are brought into conversation with each other. In practice, one discipline is often dominant. Transdisciplinarity is different. Transdisciplinarity is defined in several ways, but generally indicates a focus on 'messy' problems that require collaboration to address (often including non-academic participants like policy-makers, artists, journalists, and members of the public). For example, the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations are focused on transdisciplinary approaches to global problems: for example, how do we end world poverty by 2030? To begin to answer this question from within the university, we have to bring biologists together with sociologists, political scientists with climatologists, and historians with economists. We have to train researchers to think in new ways, and put them together with activists and politicians able to connect theory and practice. The goal of a transdisciplinary programme like Liberal Arts at Warwick is not just to train those researchers, activists, and politicians, but also to train leaders capable of defining these new questions, identifying how to solve them, and harnessing the abilities of others to implement those solutions. Put more briefly: transdisciplinarity starts with a 'messy' problem and moves beyond academia; interdisciplinarity describes some of the specific methods an individual expert might use to solve that problem.

Where can I find out more?

Now you’re thinking like a liberal arts student! Independent inquiry drives all liberal arts. There are a lot of academic studies about the pedagogy of liberal education, and there’s even more about the ways in which these educational methods intersect with various historical moments, figures, and ideas. Beyond that, you’ll find many articles in public-facing media that discuss the value of a liberal education. I’ll try to keep it simple and provide a few starting-off points.

For a well-voiced articulation of the values of a(n American-style) liberal education, see Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education (Norton, 2015).

For a wonderful narrative about the history of liberal education and its cultural, religious, and political importance, see Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth and Sixteenth-Century Europe (Duckworth, 1986).

For a survey of the classical roots of liberal education, see Rachel Bruzzone and Claudia Michel, eds., The Roots of the Liberal Arts in Antiquity: A Handbook (University College Freiburg/Rombach, 2015).

An overview of the development of transdisciplinarity as a concept forms the basis of Jay Hillel Bernstein's "Transdisciplinarity: A Review of Its Origins, Development, and Current Issues", in Journal of Research Practice 11:1 (2015).