Liberal Arts Roundtable at Bath Spa University

Posted on February 18, 2016

A Liberal Arts roundtable discussion was hosted by Bath Spa University and moderated by Professor John Strachan to discuss the role of liberal arts in the modern university with distinguished guests from four perspectives relating the liberal arts to university education in the broadest sense (Professor Grayling), a specific liberal arts programme (Professor Zorin), interdisciplinarity between the arts and sciences (Dr Rohn), and the role of the creative arts and civic engagement (Dr Thompson). In introducing the speakers Vice Chancellor Professor Christina Slade set the tone of the event: ‘we are on the beginning of a journey in liberal arts’.

Professor A C Grayling noted that a ‘liberal arts education will help prepare graduates for the 21st Century’ by providing the opportunity for in-depth study (‘one of the finest ways to hone the sharpness of the intellect’) at the same time to encourage breadth (for a ‘wider horizon’) and that this can only be accomplished if both are done ‘whole-heartedly’. While he notes this will be ‘demanding for undergraduates, if stimulating, they will embrace it’. He also emphasised that ‘a liberal arts education opens doors and windows onto what you are going to do later’ and that ‘unless you are training for a vocation, we don’t know what we are preparing graduates for other than a complicated and rapidly changing environment’.

Dr Jennifer Rohn emphasised the importance of critical thinking outside of one’s specialism which provides the ‘confidence and flexibility to be a creative and versatile person’. She argued that while specialisations can co-exist within the humanities, sciences and arts, the value of a liberal arts degree is gained by taking a variety of subjects. This variety can expose students to subjects that they may not have known existed and to ‘work out what you are good at or like’.

Professor Andrei Zorin argued that early specialism and lack of flexibility in Higher Education ‘is like being engaged to be married at 19 years old without a legal divorce’. According to Zorin, a liberal arts education is ‘a way of helping young people to shape themselves and not to be confined within the limits of their identity, to make a person an author or shaping their professional identity. Professor Zorin noted: ‘Western traditions have produced some good things. Liberal arts is one of them’.

Dr Shirley Thompson said the liberal arts is about ‘a love of learning, being scholarly, to be curious about different modes of learning and subjects’. She argued that a liberal arts education helps a student to think about what they want to ‘be’ rather than what they want to ‘do’ – the kind of citizen that is more critical, reflective and contributes to society. Using her own experience, she described how a liberal arts mind-set enables her to use ‘music politically and socially to transform people’s lives’.

In advance of the roundtable, Professor Ian Gadd produced a discussion document that was shared with the speakers in advance of the roundtable discussion. If you would like to contribute your responses to the discussion points (at the end) please send your comments and we will share them on the website and social media.

Liberal Arts and the Modern University

Ian Gadd, Academic Director, GALA

As you will all know, the origins of the liberal arts lie with the skills and knowledge that were considered fundamental to being an effective citizen in the ancient world: grammar, logic, and rhetoric (later known as the ‘Trivium’) and music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (‘Quadrivium’). These subjects formed the basic undergraduate curriculum in the West for centuries, although new subjects (such as philosophy, poetry, and history) were added. More recently, the term is most often associated with specific kinds of higher education institutions in the US (‘Liberal Arts colleges’) that share particular demographic characteristics (e.g. undergraduate focused, relatively small, residential etc) and whose degrees tend not to focus on professional, vocational, or technical subjects.

UCAS currently lists 18 UK HEIs that offer undergraduate degrees in ‘the Liberal Arts’ or something similar: Aberystwyth, Birmingham, Bristol, Derby, Durham, Essex, Exeter, Keele, Kent, KCL, Leeds, Regent’s University London, Royal Holloway, SOAS (‘Global Liberal Arts’), Surrey, UCL, Warwick, and Winchester. Several offer a version of their programme with a year abroad (Birmingham, Essex, Exeter, Kent, Leeds, Royal Holloway) or a year’s placement (Surrey), and a handful offer 4- or 5-year Masters programmes, titled either MLibArts (Aberytswyth, Bristol, Exeter) or MArt (Keele). Only two seem to offer a BSc/BA (Birmingham, Surrey—both call their programmes ‘Liberal Arts and Sciences’). At a postgraduate level, only Winchester offers a standalone MA (‘Modern Liberal Arts’), although BSU will be offering its own MA very soon. (Interestingly, ‘Liberal Arts’ is not given as a subject heading by UCAS for browsing so students must know of these courses beforehand to find them on the UCAS website.)

Some definitions

“[There are some who argue] that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured.…This they call making Education and Instruction “useful,” and “Utility” becomes their watchword. With a fundamental principle of this nature, they very naturally go on to ask, what there is to show for the expense of a University; what is the real worth in the market of the article called “a Liberal Education,” on the supposition that it does not teach us definitely how to advance our manufactures, or to improve our lands, or to better our civil economy; or again, if it does not at once make this man a lawyer, that an engineer, and that a surgeon….  (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852))

“Modern liberal arts and sciences education is a system of higher education designed to foster in students the desire and capacity to learn, think critically, and communicate proficiently, and to prepare them to function as engaged citizens. It is distinguished by a flexible curriculum that demands breadth as well as depth of study, encourages inter-disciplinarity, and enables student choice. It is realized through a student-centered pedagogy that is interactive and requires students to engage directly with texts within and outside of the classroom.” (Jonathan Becker, “What a Liberal Arts What a Liberal Arts

Education is Education is…and is Not” (2003))

“Liberal arts and sciences students are first and foremost trained to:

  • cultivate a broad and interdisciplinary education;
  • develop a passion for life-long learing;
  • think analytically and critically;
  • approach issues from multiple points of view;
  • communicate effectively;
  • to solve problems efficiently.

The liberal arts and sciences teaching philosophy presupposes that a general, broad bachelor education is the first step towards a more specialized master’s program. The interdisciplinary approach provides both breadth and scope: students are introduced to a variety of subjects from different academic disciplines and acquire essential academic skills. Thus, a liberal arts and sciences education by far offers the ideal basis for students to cultivate an open and critical mind, enabling them to cooperate within a globalizing, multicultural society and workforce. A liberal arts and sciences education flourishes best in an environment that fosters mutual respect and understanding. An internationally oriented approach in combination with an international student and faculty body provides the perfect context to achieve such an environment. In addition, a personal and close interaction between students and teachers is indispensable in this process of learning.” (European Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences (ECOLAS), ‘What is Liberal Arts and Sciences’)

“Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. The broad goals of liberal education have been enduring even as the courses and requirements that comprise a liberal education have changed over the years. Today, a liberal education usually includes a general education curriculum that provides broad learning in multiple disciplines and ways of knowing, along with more in-depth study in a major.” (Association of American Colleges & Universities, ‘What is a Liberal Education’)

“The origins of Liberal Arts go back to ancient Greece and Rome. Scholars as diverse as Pythagoras, Plato and Socrates insisted on the virtues of an education that spanned the disciplines. In the Middle Ages, this idea continued as universities began by teaching the range of subjects known at the time. From the 19th century onwards, a growing trend towards specialisation in the development of individual disciplines led to the introduction of more subject-specific degrees at university. As academic research has increasingly broken down disciplinary boundaries, it has become clear that researchers of the future will need to be able to use knowledge and skills from across multiple disciplines to address major research questions. At the same time, the pace of economic change means that transferrable skills such as communication, critical thinking and cultural awareness are increasingly seen as the vital keys to career success. The BA Liberal Arts therefore draws on a rich educational tradition to meet contemporary needs.” (KCL, BA in Liberal Arts)

“Liberal Arts education has a long history in Western civilisation. In its oldest form, it involved students thinking philosophically about questions that crossed the rigid boundaries of disciplines, and encouraged them to use critical tools from the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and fine arts to address these questions. It enables you to study a wide range of subjects and to create a pathway through the degree that reflects your individual intellectual interests, allowing for flexibility in module choices and innovation in subject specialism. You will become aware of how different disciplines coincide and converge and you will learn to address questions by deploying the most appropriate methodology and utilising the most relevant evidence.” (Warwick, BA in Liberal Arts)

“An institutional clustering of subjects from the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences that respects intellectual and disciplinary diversity and that fosters creative and critical dialogues and collaborations. It draws on classical, humanistic, and enlightenment models of education that place the university at the heart of civic society, and seeks to advance and apply knowledge through intellectual freedom, critical thinking, creative curiosity, reasoned debate, and public engagement.” (Bath Spa, College of Liberal Arts)

Selected discussion points

  • Should definitions of the liberal arts focus primarily on subject diversity, pedagogical approach, ethos, or something else?
  • Does a focus on the liberal arts risk undermining disciplinary individuality?
  • Does the history of the liberal arts matter? If so, to whom?
  • Can the liberal arts be global? Is their Western origin an advantage or a problem?
  • What is the role of ‘creativity’ in the liberal arts?
  • Is there a need for a new definition of the liberal arts, and if so what should it include?
  • Do we need separate ‘liberal arts’ degrees—aren’t the liberal arts implicit in much of higher education teaching anyway?
  • What is distinctive about a liberal arts programme? Can it make students think differently and if so, about what? What’s unique about a liberal arts graduate?
  • How important is civic engagement? What form should this take? Do the liberal arts have a role in the workplace?
  • Traditionally, the liberal arts have been associated with undergraduate teaching, but do they have a place in the postgraduate curriculum? Are they of relevance to academic research?