One of the really interesting mini-trends in global higher education these days is the recent spread of Liberal Arts colleges into parts of the world where there is no tradition of such institutions. Singapore has invited Yale to set up a Liberal Arts college at National University Singapore, with the stated aim of creating an Asian model of Liberal Arts. In Europe, the newly-created Amsterdam University College has brought a new and very structured approach to Liberal Arts. And, as we reported in our inaugural issue of the Global Higher Education Strategy Monitor, Aseshi University in Ghana was recently established to try to bring a new high-quality professional education with a strong moral dimension.
What’s somewhat interesting about this development is that these new institutions are justified primarily on instrumental grounds: that Liberal Arts provides certain skills, that these skills are advantageous for the economy, etc. This kind of rhetoric isn’t entirely absent from the Liberal Arts discourse in North America, but more often over here, such programs are justified in terms of their social and moral benefits (see Martha Nussbaum, ad infinitum).
It’s important to note that the term “Liberal Arts” isn’t interpreted consistently around the world. The original Liberal Arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) was at least as much about science as it was about what we know call “the arts.” Some programs have kept this designation; certainly, in the United States there is a greater tendency to include the social sciences and sciences in the mix, and the new Amsterdam University College is very explicit in its focus on math, statistics and science. In Canada, on the other hand, Liberal Arts has drifted in meaning so that it is sometimes indistinguishable from the humanities.
Steve Jobs, famously, praised the humanities as a source of inspiration and meaning – but if you read the full quote, he was praising the value of the marriage of the humanities and technology. Globally, the Liberal Arts are starting to take up the engagement with science and technology. But in North American and especially Canada, there’s a tendency for the humanities to et squeamish about engaging with science and technology, because (to paraphrase Louis Menand) there is a misperception that there’s some inherent conflict between things that are practical and things that are true.
The Liberal Arts have a lot to offer the 21st century. But as the new Liberal Arts curricula in Europe, Asia and Africa are showing, the hang-ups about purity and engaging with the practical have simply got to go.