The return of the Liberal Arts to Europe



The liberal arts have always been a North American preoccupation. It has traditionally been one of the main ways in which American and Canadian higher education has presented itself to the world. Liberal-arts colleges are some of the jewels in the crown of American higher education, and the spirit of the liberal arts has impressed itself on many of the great American universities.

But now the liberal arts are moving out into the world. For example, in Europe, liberal-arts colleges are beginning to grow in number, especially in the Netherlands. So are liberal-arts degrees. For example, a number of British universities, including University College London and King’s College London, are now offering liberal-arts degrees, and more will follow. In Asia the founding of the Yale-NUS College, in Singapore, is a brave experiment.

The return of the liberal arts to Europe is especially interesting. One story that has never been fully told about British higher education is the narrowing of its degrees. When I was a student, many universities would require students to take three subjects in the first year, two in the second, and one in the third. When and why this disappeared in so many places, I am not quite sure. Meanwhile, a few brave experiments with much broader university curricula, often modeled on American lines, went the way of all flesh, again for reasons that are not all obvious to me.

Even small specialist British institutions like the London School of Economics and Political Science, which specializes in the social sciences and might have been able to offer more in the way of interdisciplinary content, seem to have succumbed to the onslaught of single-discipline degrees.

That narrowing of university curricula is regrettable, and it cannot be patched up by just a few interdisciplinary modules, important as those undoubtedly are. Therefore, the move toward what might be thought of as an American liberal-arts model in Europe and Asia is surely to be welcomed. But it will still be limited in scope, I suspect. The pull of single-discipline degrees remains great.

That stricture about disciplines applies to science in particular. Liberal-arts degrees have often had difficulty in taking science into account, yet it is no longer acceptable to let scientific illiteracy go by in a world where science and technology are redefining what counts as human, a question that is, after all, a major preoccupation of liberal-arts degrees.

Indeed, one of the trends I detect in Europe is the construction of so-called liberal-sciences colleges. In the United States, there are already a group of what might, with a certain degree of latitude, be called liberal-sciences colleges, like Harvey Mudd, Macalester, and Olin. There seems no reason to believe that the form cannot proliferate in Europe and Asia.

What seems clear is that university curricula will go through a major period of experimentation over the next 10 years as they adjust to the requirements of a world in which single disciplines are increasingly merging into one another and the notion of a “specialism” is taking on a rather different meaning. Some of those new liberal-arts developments may therefore be best thought of as harbingers of greater change.