The benefits of a liberal education

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is the concept of a liberal arts degree or education. I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of reasons. The first is that the notion of a liberal education — whereby someone studies a range of different subjects, which results in a wide range of general learning rather than a narrow set of studies that are tailored towards a specific, usually vocational, end — has come up in my research. William Beveridge, for example, promoted a liberal education as the template for economics, arguing that it was essential for students to engage with the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities. The second reason is that a liberal arts degree has come up frequently of late in conversations with my colleagues in different disciplines.

It seems to me that what the liberal arts degree stands for is something that is worth investigating for a number of different reasons. One is the uncertainty that now faces higher education in the UK as a result of the planned changes to university funding. What’s clear is that those in charge of decision making in this area only think about higher education as a gateway to higher earning. According to this view, universities are nothing more than institutions that grant credentials to individuals so that they can then take up particular jobs/positions within the economy. Putting my objections to this view aside for a moment, it seems to me that if this idea is to play a significant role in formulating UK higher education policy then the UK is going to need something similar to the liberal arts colleges that are found in the USA. If universities are supposed to play a role in providing skills that are useful in the wider world, why not develop institutions that don’t force students to specialise but instead educate them to a high level across a broad range of subjects that might be used towards all manner of different ends?

 

Another reason is that an education across a broad range of subjects, regardless of what type of institution that education takes place in, seems like a good thing in its own right. Though I only have circumstantial evidence to back this point up with, it seems that one consequence of the effort to push universities towards tailoring their courses with the needs of business and the economy in mind is ever greater specialisation. It’s not uncommon these days for a student to go through their entire degree without studying outside of their parent department. In the case of a field like economics, which I’ve been looking at a lot recently, that means a student isn’t just learning about a narrow range of subjects but also an increasingly narrow range of approaches to those subjects. In many ways, this seems a natural and logical consequence of a set of policies in which education is supposed to serve a pretty restricted set of ends. After all, what’s the point of learning about 10 different things if you only need to know about 2 to get on that graduate scheme?

 

For these reasons, it seems that a renewed sense of a liberal education might be what’s required to solve some of the problems facing higher education. If we want a better educated population possessing better skills of different types — and all sides will agree that this is a desirable end — then why continue to pursue the road to increasing specialisation, which apparently doesn’t seem to be doing that? Moreover, making a broad range of studies a compulsory part of higher education would actually be an important statement about the value to be attached to different subjects. This would certainly be an improvement on the current situation where, if things pan out as Browne and the Tories want, the arts and humanities will receive no government funding because, they argue, these fields contribute nothing (by which they mean nothing purely financial/economic) to society.

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