On Liberal Education: Views from Abroad

In the United States, when we contemplate the phrases “liberal education,” “liberal arts education,” or “education in the liberal arts and sciences,” we face two essentially opposed perspectives. On the one hand, the years beyond high school have long been seen as a period when young people can leave home, spend several years in a comfortable setting (perhaps near, perhaps distant from their families), mix with peers, enjoy an active social life, and perhaps learn things that are interesting and useful. We can call this the romantic view of higher education. More recently, however, the high expense of higher education, as well as the lesser likelihood of finding a good job right after graduation, has led to a less happy perspective. Perhaps college is not worth it; indeed, in recent polls, politically conservative respondents actually indicate that higher education is bad for the national interests—a pattern of response that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. We can call this the disenchanted view.

In other parts of the world, higher education has had a quite different history. For one thing, it has been restricted to a small elite: students who have done well in secondary school and have passed a challenging completion exam. Second, it is usually pointedly vocational; one goes to university to become an engineer a lawyer, or a physician. Third, and importantly, it has traditionally been free or of low cost, with the vast majority of students living at home and not “on campus.”

But recently, notably in Europe and Asia, an increasing number of institutions of higher learning—both government-sponsored and for-profit—have been launched. (It’s been estimated that there are about 200 self-styled liberal education institutions outside the United States.) Students who decide to enroll have a “blanker slate”—they do not arrive with a disposition to romanticize or castigate this form of education. Taking advantage of this situation, three scholars (Jakob Tonda Dirksen, Daniel Kontowski, and David Kretz) have asked students who are attending or have attended liberal arts institutions in Europe to answer the question, “What is liberal education, and what could it be?”. The editors have published the responses of 17 students in the slim volume What is Liberal Education and What Could It Be? European Students on Their Liberal Arts Education.

In some ways, the respondents are reminiscent of students at select American liberal arts schools. By their own testimony, they tend to come from relatively affluent backgrounds—and yet also have to defend themselves against friends and family members who ask them why they are not pursuing a vocational career. As Leon says of his school, “Leuphana University is a quite homogeneous space where many of us students come from middle-class backgrounds, spent a year volunteering before entering university, and speak at least three languages.”

More so than most Americans students, those enrolled in European colleges that style themselves as “liberal arts” centers see themselves as risk takers. The kind of education that they have chosen to pursue is unfamiliar to many in their worlds—and so they feel like they have proclaimed themselves as different from their peers. In this sense, they are more like first-generation students in the United States: they have placed a distance between themselves and both family member and secondary school peers—who, if they had pursued tertiary education at all, would have been more likely to pursue a conventional degree in a single subject matter (like economics) or in a professional career.

These select students declare their uniqueness in what they say and how they say it. Consider this evidence:

  • Some lines from the poem “Artists and Scientists: The Uncommon View” by Nathalie (University College, Freiburg):

We are the artists one hasn’t seen before
Since we draw connections through actions, reactions, and dissatisfaction
We are the scientists of the shades of grey
When everyone’s leaving, we smile and stay to inspect it all

  • Teun (University College, Maastricht) on “The Headaches and Joys of an Open Curriculum”:

For the Renaissance women and men, they have an opportunity to avoid choosing
For the Tailors, a way to choose precisely what they wanted
For the Shoppers, they will try different courses and see what grabs them
For the Avoiders, a way to avoid courses or approaches that they feared or were not interested in

  • Sem (University of Winchester) makes a drawing of the difference between the oblivious child and the one who has seen the light:

  • While Lukas (Leuphana Univesrity, Luneberg) mixes Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics with his own text about liberal education:

Simon and Garfunkel: “Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down”

Lukas: Against this background, my study was a salad bowl of experiences. All over the liberal arts, the “multi-, inter-, & trans-disciplinary hype of un-education accompanied me smoothly, carried me safe”

As should be evident, the writers collated by the editors are a lively group, not reluctant to express what is on their mind in artistic form.

Some of their testimony is more pointed and critical:

  • Iesse (Leuphana University in Luneberg) wonders whether, instead of being critical of capitalism, he and his peers are being prepared to join the neo-liberal class—becoming in effect the future “Davos” women and men: “For me liberal education rather corresponds to the latest developments in capital society—its ideals of capital accumulation, market-liberalism, comprehensive competitiveness, and the inherent exploitations of capitalism. Whether one likes or dislikes this will certainly vary with context. I guess that many people, are, like, me, torn.”
  • Jacob (European College of Liberal Arts, Berlin) questions a number of widely held assumptions. He wonders whether liberal education truly achieves critical thinking (let alone the more radical challenging of assumptions); rather than being “interdisciplinary,” he suggests that it is pre-disciplinary; and it fails to ask whether a competitive career is really the sole aim of life. As he concludes, “modern liberal education misses the same introspective qualities that it fails to develop in its students.”

I’ve introduced some of the more exotic responses to the questions put forth by the editors—allusive in their use of artistic tools and/or pointedly critical of the programs in which they have matriculated.

But this sample in isolation gives a distorted picture of the testimonies in this collection. Overall, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of the responses—whether literal or metaphoric, whether critical or complimentary. Here are some powerful points made by the students:

  • Drawing on Plato, Clara (Leiden University College) sees the education of the soul as the ideal conception of liberal education. She delineates how one might educate the soul of the good man (the ideal soul, the just soul, the educated soul) as one which is wise and courageous and which is able to moderate its desires so that it may focus on the achievement of higher (immaterial) goods. The true liberal artisans would get along well with Plato; they are open minded critical thinkers, who do not back away from challenges.
  • Nathan (Amsterdam University College) points out that “the liberal arts have shown me that it is this professional and academic humility—at a time when young people are pressured to have clearly articulated convictions, interests, and ambitions—that will allow me to dare to explore disciplines beyond my specialization.”
  • Sanne (University College, Roosevelt, Middleburg) praises the features of campus life that American students too often take for granted: “The university college made sure rent was affordable; living together next to your fellow students only minutes from the university made working together easy to arrange, and there were always people around to have a cup of tea with late at night. UCR students really formed a strong close-knit community.”
  • Arthur (King’s College, London) asserts that “the liberal arts afforded me the opportunity to think as a history student, as philosophy student, as a film student, and as a literature student at the same time. I found that studying multiple different subjects at the same time allowed me to pool knowledge and different methodologies from each discipline for the benefit of a project. In addition I could take different ways of thinking from different disciplines to approach a subject in a new way.”
  • Brita (King’s College, London) declares that “ultimately liberal arts and its inter-disciplinarity has for me involved an acknowledgement of life as simultaneously meaningless and bursting with meaning. I am no longer to conceptualize or express my life and future life without including art, personal growth, relationships and emotions, as well as academic and professional progress… Liberal arts can teach you what is good, what is bad, what you value, and what does not matter to you. Ultimately, what more could you ask of an education?”

These voices from young persons studying liberal arts outside of the United States are illuminating in two ways:

  1. They cast fresh light on features of a form of education that has long been associated with the United States—both its prestigious private institutions and its capacious public institutions—that may have become less visible and less vivid to those who have long taken their assumptions for granted.
  2. At a time when liberal education is under severe attack in the United States (for some valid reasons, but mostly for reasons that are ill-informed), this informal European study suggests some features that may flourish in soils remote from our shores.

Note: For expositional purposes, some of the quotations above have been lightly edited. I trust that the intended meaning always comes through.

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3 Comments on “On Liberal Education: Views from Abroad”

  1. Nathalie Kornet December 13, 2017 at 4:38 pm #

    Dear Dr. Gardner,

    My name is Nathalie Kornet, I wrote one of the poems you cited in this post. I just wanted to inform you that there are minor mistakes in the assignment of colleges to names. I am for example from university college Freiburg, Teun is from Maastricht.
    Best wishes,


    • Howard Gardner December 13, 2017 at 4:51 pm #


      Thank you very much for your comment drawing our attention to these small errors. We have made changes to the post.

      -The Offices of Howard Gardner

  2. Daniel Kontowski December 14, 2017 at 2:53 pm #

    It is always inspiring to see a work like this being reorganised in the review process, and since you have asked for my reactions, I would gladly enter the discussion. The affluent background feature, for example, is from my perspective not completely true—but you are certainly right that embarking on such alternative project requires a lot of cultural capital and social security; it might indeed be evident in both self-reflective or self-critical approaches, and a feeling of uniqueness that you singled out in your review. Maybe the word “affluent” just rings a different bell for me, suggesting something more than educated parents from a stable middle class upwards. I think you hint at that when you call our authors “risk takers” who might feel double exclusion. Anecdotal evidence says that often prodigies of professors are the biggest group who decide to enter those degree programs. And the differences in tuition rates (from non-existing in Germany to exorbitant in the UK) and the prestige of university (from relatively new, regional Leuphana to the likes of UCL) further structure the matrix. Obviously, with such a “sample” we were unable to say anything meaningful about those dimensions. We also consciously decided to let the authors speak in their own voice as much as possible, restraining ourselves from explaining what they mean and why. And I now think that was a good strategy, exactly because you can focus on points that we would otherwise have overlooked.

    Finally, your blog comes at a time of heightened media attention about liberal arts in China —see for example here (https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/world-view/liberal-arts-innovations-chinese-higher-education) or here (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20171123075843679) or here (http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20171202052059445)—where either students or the work of education are largely ignored, while claims about economic and political relevance of such a model, that I treat with some suspicion, are taking the main stage. Those might be called “liberal arts without the students.” Already last year I thought that this approach would lead a discussion on liberal arts outside the US nowhere. If additionally the majority of people writing about those developments have a personal and career stake in them, both the source and the message rings insincere—and it might explain the final outcome, which is a very thin adoption of the liberal arts approach. If liberal arts really were a solution to the world biggest problems as some of the proponents seem to claim, I cannot see why the world stubbornly refuses to apply it for no good reason. An alternative, starting from the students, on the other hand, seemed to me a better idea. It provides a better springboard for the broader impressions on the liberal arts, of the likes you start your blog with.

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