Importing the liberal arts to England: differentiation and elitism in a marketised HE system
|Starts:||14:00 18 May 2016|
|Ends:||15:00 18 May 2016|
|What is it:||Seminar|
|Organiser:||School of Social Sciences|
|Who is it for:||University staff, Adults, Current University students|
The current higher education policy landscape is characterised by an increasing focus on employability, and in such a context it is particularly difficult for HEIs to make a case for the humanities disciplines, traditionally conceived. In their focus on ‘education for its own sake’ and the pursuit of intellectual curiosity – in short their decidedly non-vocational focus – the humanities appear quite out of step with the prevailing policy mood. This paper will focus on the emergence of one strategy for negotiating the current higher education landscape in England: the interdisciplinary (but generally humanities-based) liberal arts degree. Fourteen English HEIs (spanning the Russell Group, Million+, GuildHE and the former 1994 Group) now offer liberal arts degrees, with three further institutions planning new courses to begin in 2016.
Through an analysis of the promotional websites of all seventeen HEIs advertising liberal arts degrees, the paper will examine similarities and differences in the ways that more and less prestigious HEIs conceptualise the liberal arts degree and its prospective students. In particular, I will focus on a set of tensions which must be managed by HEIs if they are to promote these degrees as coherent: that between educational tradition and innovation; between the non-vocational and a drive toward employability; between the generic nature of the skills to be imparted and the ‘uniqueness’ of the degrees and their students; and between a (sometimes hyperbolic) concept of liberal arts as preparing students to be global citizens, as against a highly individualised idea of preparing select students for leadership.
Throughout their negotiations of these tensions, it is older, elite HEIs which particularly press for a sense of their liberal arts students as uniquely talented individuals who will come to take on leadership roles. In this highly individualised account an elite conception of humanities education easily re-emerges. Through some historical comparison with mid-twentieth century attempts to reinvigorate liberal arts provision in the US through a purported return to the ‘Great Books of the Western World’, I argue that, while in complex negotiation with notions of democracy and citizenship, the liberal arts idea can be used to differentiate an elite form of education, and an elite group of students, within a mass HE system.
Role: Lecturer in Sociology
Organisation: University of Manchester
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