In Britain, a Return to the Idea of the Liberal Arts

Tim Goral's picture

Until very recently, students in Britain who wanted to study more than one or two subjects at college received some blunt advice: “Go west” — to the United States or Canada, where the classical tradition of a broad-based humanistic education has long flourished in liberal arts colleges. Despite their European origins, the liberal arts have been in continual retreat on the Continent, edged out by programs devoted to a single discipline like economics or history.

In Britain, the more traditional private schools have carried on the classical approach — many still require students to study both Latin and ancient Greek — but the British system, too, is one of relentlessly narrowing focus. Students, who may take a dozen different subjects at age 14, are expected to filter down to just three or four by age 16 in preparation for applying to study a single subject at university.

There are a few exceptions: Students studying natural sciences at Cambridge or Durham University are allowed to take courses across the sciences in their first two years before choosing one for their final-year exams. Oxford offers a number of joint honors degrees allowing students to combine two disciplines, like history and economics or philosophy and physics. The University of Edinburgh offers a similar program combining law and a number of other disciplines.

But anyone who wanted to study both the arts and the sciences, or to take courses across a range of disciplines, had to leave the country, until now. This past autumn, King’s College London and University College London both admitted their first cohort of undergraduates to new programs in the liberal arts. The University of Exeter is set to begin offering a similar program next autumn. So are the University of Birmingham and the University of Kent in Canterbury, whose courses will each take four years to complete, making them even more like a U.S. undergraduate degree.

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