Misconception Series: Why Liberal Arts & Sciences deserve to be taken seriously

By Gesine Höltmann

When naming my field of study to people who are not familiar with the concept of a “Liberal Arts” education, I constantly find myself in front of a skeptical audience. When applying for a job or graduate studies, Liberal Arts students are often met with the same puzzlement. What the field needs is a thorough introduction as well as more publicity, to provide it with more credibility in society and make it sound less like “Arts” + “do whatever you want”.

Originally a predominantly American concept, US colleges ensure that undergraduate students choose a variety of subjects in college before declaring a major and pursuing more specialized studies at graduate level. The more recent movement in Europe however, mainly concentrated in the Netherlands and a few British universities, refocuses on the education of ‘global citizens’ by setting certain education requirements and core courses that constitute a perception of what is regarded as ‘necessary knowledge’ and convey the tools that any student should take from higher education across all disciplines. Some even see in it a return to what universities were originally meant to instill: “Universities are not a place of professional education. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, physicians or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings” (Mill).

While this perspective on the meaning of a university education may be regarded as rather elitist, the European university landscape is changing to adapt to the needs of an increasingly volatile job market. In Europe, critical voices call for increasing interdisciplinarity and wariness of premature overspecialization. In Maastricht, one already finds features of interdisciplinarity and broad curricula, not only at the Liberal Arts college, but in all social science bachelors, giving traditional fields of study a broader outlook geared towards European or international applicability.

Liberal Arts itself revolves around a philosophy of life-long learning, of exploring many academic interests and not leaving them behind at the doorstep to higher education. It is inherently interdisciplinary and encourages students to look at their field of study from various perspectives, while giving them the power to determine what their field of study should actually encompass. Such freedom on the level of curriculum formation is rare in the age of standardized bachelor programs, where critics bemoan the evolution of ‘Group Think’ amongst students, and their willingness to “jump through all the right hoops” (Herzog, FAZ, 2015).

The criticism of academic “hoop jumping” in the US is currently led by Yale professor William Deresiewicz, who makes the bold statement that preset academic pathways and the lack of general education turned his students into ‘excellent sheep’, unable to determine their own values. His answer? A return to the original purpose of universities, namely to forge widely educated, well-rounded citizens, who can actively contribute to the overall development of their society. When synthesizing the aims of Liberal Arts, one finds just the following: the aim of educating the ‘whole person’, forging responsible citizens or “capable and cultivated human beings” (Van der Wende).

Is Liberal Arts the ultimate form of higher education that should replace the current structure of European undergraduate education? No! But it is the dominant form of education reform that answers to the increasing need for interdisciplinarity and diverse backgrounds required for the flexibility and volatility of today’s job market, next to the creation of interdisciplinary bachelor programs. As accessibility of university education in Europe increases and the number of students considering higher education grows, Liberal Arts offers an alternative to the rigidity of many of the conventional studies. Last but not least, Liberal Arts is an attempt to answer the question of what distinguishes universities from other institutions of professional training, and in that sense, a Liberal Arts element can easily be included in all forms of bachelor programs.

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