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Long live the liberal dinosaur

Is the traditional arts course, not directly linked to jobs, to be seen as 'useless' in post-Thatcherite Britain?
It was while I was at grammar school in the 1940s that I first came across the quip that the principal benefit of a classical education is that it teaches you how to despise the money it prevents you from earning. Fifty years later the story is much the same, as in a recent article on these pages which asked whether arts graduates are today's dinosaurs.

What we are talking about is that endangered species in post-Thatcherite Britain - a liberal education; by which we mean university years spent in the study of subjects which have no great value in or direct connection to the jobs market.

The thing that intrigues me about this, however, is that in the United States - market-driven and materialistic, but always forward-looking - most of the members of its business, political, cultural and professional elites have spent four of the most formative years of their lives as undergraduates studying a liberal arts curriculum. There are three principal kinds of institution offering such studies: undergraduate colleges at the heart of the major universities (Columbia College, Yale College); scores of small free-standing liberal arts colleges (such as Oberlin, Bryn Mawr, Williams, Carleton, Vassar); and several small universities (Dartmouth, Princeton, Brandeis) where liberal arts undergraduates outnumber post- graduates and are the principal focus of attention.

One need look no further than the top tier in the White House for graduates from each kind: Al Gore is an alumnus of Harvard College, Hilary Clinton is an alumna of Wellesley College, and Bill Clinton got his BA from Georgetown University.

None of the major American institutions of higher education offers any undergraduate degrees in professional subjects: all degree courses in medicine, law and business, and most in such fields as social work, education, media studies and architecture, in the best universities, require a liberal arts BA for admission.

It would be misleading to imply that all American doctors and all Fortune 500 CEOs studied nothing but "useless" subjects as undergraduates - many of them will have been, respectively, "pre-med" and economics majors; and many who are headed for the elite law schools will have made an effort to choose as many "relevant" courses as possible from the offerings of history and philosophy departments.

It is also a fact that many students value the chance to attend one of the best of the liberal arts colleges because of the contacts they are likely to make, friendships and associations which may be of value to them in later life. But it is also a simple fact that a summa cum laude BA in, say, physics or music or anthropology will have a much better chance of gaining entry to a top medical school than a pre-med BA who graduated without honours.

And the opportunity to make friends and influence people is not unique to small institutions. But it is being given freedom to choose by a liberal (some would say liberating) education that lies at the heart of the matter.

The President of Dartmouth Collage during the 1970s was John Kemeny, co-inventor of the BASIC computer language; himself a Princeton graduate who had taken a double major in maths and philosophy, he would frequently make the central claim for liberal education by pointing out that he had not taken a single course in computer science when he was an undergraduate - for the simple reason that there was no such thing as computer science then.

It was a liberal education - being taught how to think, how to value exploration, speculation and scepticism, which had put him in a perfect position to help develop computer science as it emerged. It was a Dartmouth dean who defined a liberal education as one that "encourages bright young people to imagine the unimaginable, think the unthinkable and deal with the unpredictable".

It is very much to America's credit, I believe, that its brightest students engage in such a pursuit in an era in which change is certain to be the dominant force, flexibility a multi-purpose tool, and breadth of vision a key to success and fulfilment.

Observing how all the British vice-chancellors seem to be going nuts trying to figure out how to improve their ratings in research, so that they all get a bigger bite of the research funding apple, I find myself wondering where the teachers (and administrators) are who are the UK's counterparts of the presidents, deans, and members of faculty of America's liberal arts colleges and small high-quality universities? Do they not exist - brilliant men and women whose sense of achievement comes from teaching undergraduates really well, at least as much as from searching archives or conducting experiments or writing books? Is such a calling no longer desirable or feasible?

Could not a dozen UK universities be transformed into institutions whose leaders are able to recruit and reward faculties made up entirely of brilliant women and men who, like their US colleagues, have a somewhat different, but equally valuable contribution to make to the life of their nation?

It could be said that undergraduates in the small and intellectually heterogeneous colleges of Oxford and Cambridge have always been, and will continue to be, the recipients of the kind of education - broad-based, humanistic, individual, open-minded - that merits the adjective "liberal". Perhaps that accounts for the fact that the membership of the UK's business, political, cultural and professional elite comes so overwhelmingly from Oxbridge graduates.

But to make that point does not invalidate a plea for some British equivalents of Oberlin, Vassar and Dartmouth - especially at a time when even the ancient universities are more "under the gun" than ever before to take the financial incentives which elevate research above all other elements of a university's mission.

If even half a dozen of the British universities - especially those which have the good fortune to be relatively discrete communities in attractive and salubrious locations such as Durham, Kent and East Anglia - were to model themselves on the best of American liberal arts colleges, and to concentrate on undergraduate teaching based on curricula which are the antithesis of the kind of pre-professional training which is so widespread nowadays, I feel certain that they would flourish. They would surely graduate disproportionately large numbers of women and men in tune with the demands likely to be made by the 21st Century.

If, as seems almost certain, tuition fees are levied for undergraduate courses in the future, I am ready to predict confidently that admissions offices in "liberal arts universities" would be swamped with applicants; and that such places would be in the forefront of those institutions most widely celebrated for giving the best value for the money that students' parents, as well as the taxpayers, entrust to them n

The author is a graduate of Birmingham and Durham .For the past 30 years he has worked in America, on the staffs of the University of California, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University - at the last as Dean of the School of Arts from 1987 to 1995.