Liberal arts colleges – The model for the future

There will always be a significant need for higher education to produce the technical and vocational experts whose presence is essential in advanced economies. Scientists, engineers, doctors and lawyers are indispensable, so universities will always train such professionals because there will always be the resources for training them.

The necessary funding either comes from individuals themselves who are confident of the return on investment involved (as in the US), or from taxpayers who are similarly (if indirectly) confident, as is still the case in the UK for science, technology and medicine.

However, among both individuals and policy-makers there is a curious blindness to the equally great need in our complex societies for generalists. Further, there is a related blindness to the need for educational generalism itself, as one of the richest possibilities for people to be more than just cogs in the economic machine.

It should be the baldest truism to say that people are not merely units of resource on balance sheets, but alas that is exactly how they are being treated in the planning and financing of higher education in too many parts of the developed world.

That is why it is necessary to remind ourselves, loudly and insistently, that people are also voters, neighbours, friends, lovers, parents, travellers, makers of choices, and deciders about matters of human as well as economic significance.

The case for the humanities

People have to be capable of understanding and engaging with a globalised, complicated world, to be equipped to overcome the human propensity for tribalism, limitation and self-interested short-termism.

The generalism in question is provided by the humanities. By ‘humanities’ I mean history, literature, philosophy, politics, classics, languages and those areas of the social sciences – economics, anthropology, psychology and sociology – that relate directly to the exploration and understanding of human nature and the human condition.

It takes little imagination to see how study of these pursuits can widen the horizons and deepen the insights of anyone who studies them attentively.

They introduce perspectives, experiences, distillations of wisdom and observation, challenges, thought-provoking questions, new opinions, assumptions and outlooks, that must healthily influence any mind that contemplates them.

I say ‘healthily’ because all these things militate against the unhealthy human propensities mentioned above. Those propensities motivate divisions and conflicts. The broadened sympathies of educated minds is a countervailing force.

It is obvious enough that attentive study of these pursuits provides the materials for individual lives to be well lived in themselves. This is no small matter. Fulfilled people with alert, outward-looking interests and understanding are always going to be a civilising influence in the world.

But study of the humanities also – and this is an important point to raise with those for whom only economic considerations justify education – provides the basis for successful workplace careers.

It does this because the humanities equip students with two invaluable possessions: an overview of human affairs whose lessons and examples can be applied to new circumstances and in response to new challenges; and a capacity to think – really, genuinely think – which among many other things means an ability to handle and evaluate ideas and information, to solve problems, to apply the lessons of experience, to see new opportunities, to innovate and to lead.

Study of the humanities has indeed always had the role of providing thought-leaders and people-leaders in society. To study the humanities is to study the example and insights of our forebears in the great human story.

For example, consider the lessons taught by history and literature, and the analyses offered by philosophy and psychology. The process of studying these subjects demands the acquisition and honing of a repertoire of intellectual skills of great value.

Admittedly, university dons have too often assumed that the process of study by itself would result in the absorption by osmosis of these skills; it has now to be realised that the skills themselves have to be more consciously acquired – but that is an adjustment easily made.

It has become a commonplace, but no less true for being one, to say that in a rapidly changing world one of the fundamental purposes of education has to be to render people fit to deal with unpredictable changes and challenges. This includes having to compete in a global economy.

In all the identities people have, whether as individuals, as citizens (of the world as well as of a particular state), and as workers in whatever field, they more than ever need flexible, alert and well-informed minds, otherwise they will fall behind and end by playing a passive rather than an active part in the tumultuous and noisy events that characterise our contemporary world.

This is the opposite of what people would wish for themselves, or that we would wish for our fellows; so, given that education is the great resource for enabling people to be actors in their own lives rather than victims of life in general, we have to ensure that real education continues to be available.

The liberal arts model

The liberal arts model in US colleges and universities is the right one for the purpose outlined here. However, higher education in the UK – indeed education in general – is far too narrow and becomes over-specialised far too early.

As the realisation grows that our world needs general humanities education as much as it needs specialist technical education, so the liberal arts model will grow internationally and become the prevailing one; of that I am morally certain.

At present, it must be admitted, the trends appear to run in the opposite direction: witness the British government’s abolition of all teaching subsidy for humanities and social sciences in universities, and the scale of the switch by prospective students to courses of study that they think will give them advantages in the workplace.

But this will prove a short-term blip. For all that we humans are capable of great folly, we are not so foolish as to fail to recognise what our real needs are, individually and socially: and that is for what feeds mind and spirit as well as job vacancies.

* AC Grayling is the first master of New College of the Humanities. He sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly 10 years was honorary secretary of the principal British philosophical association, the Aristotelian Society. New College of the Humanities opens this September in London. It will prepare students for undergraduate degrees in economics BSc, English BA, history BA, law LLB and philosophy BA.

* This commentary is based on the article, “Higher Humanities Education in the 21st Century”, published this week in Blue Skies UK 2012, an ongoing collection of new ideas about the future of higher education by the Pearson Think Tank. See all the articles and videos for free here.