Liberal arts: The broad strokes that paint a vivid future

Liberal arts eschews specialism to approach problems from many angles. By Matt Symonds
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The Independent Online

“When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut.” Such clear-minded career planning is a rare commodity these days, and though many teenagers may aspire to success in the music industry, or naturally gravitate towards working with computers, their decision about what they want to do later in life, and hence what they choose to study at university, arrives all too soon.

For Charlie Barlow, straight As in his GCSEs at school on the Isle of Man and a perfect grade for his International Baccalaureate in environmental systems left him little closer to a career path. So he decided to extend his university search beyond the UK, and is now pursuing a liberal arts degree at the University of Chicago. “My decision to study in the US was grounded in my uncertainty of what to study at such a young age. I did not feel ready to commit to a subject for university-level studies at the age of 18. I applied for places at both British and American universities in my final year, and wanted to pursue a liberal arts education for its breadth and depth,” he says.

The curricula of many US undergraduate programmes are based on this liberal arts philosophy, in which students are required to study courses from a range of general subjects that include study in English composition, social sciences, humanities, history, mathematics and natural or physical sciences. All of the undergraduates at the University of Chicago follow a liberal arts curriculum, referred to as the “core”. Created in 1930, it has long been a popular model for American general education, as a way to provide a common background of ideas for students, and a foundation for any area of focused study, or what US universities describe as a major.

The then president of the university, Robert Maynard Hutchins, saw education as more than a set of skills, or even the ability to think critically. “Education is not to reform students or amuse them or to make them expert technicians,” he argued. “It is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects, and teach them to think straight, if possible.” For Hutchins, the liberal arts approach was an experience where multidisciplinary study could illuminate complex problems.

No small task when preparing today’s Facebook generation, with Google search access to information at their fingertips.

Jim Buschman, senior director at the Office of Global Programs at New York University, echoes the view that liberal arts is founded on the concept that a general education is more useful than a specific one. “Students with good grounding in liberal arts are able to reason and think creatively, and are equipped for the continuous learning required by life and careers in a constantly changing society. They are also better versed in the world’s cultural and intellectual heritage.” A student discussion of the Peloponnesian War may be a product of Greek culture, but also becomes a lens for current events in the Middle East.

Discussion-based courses in smaller student groups was one of the huge draws of the US for Barlow, something he had not come across in the lecture-based system in the UK. “For the majority of classes – save for large science lectures and introductory courses in economics – courses are discussion based, and are generally capped at 19 students. This format allows for a high level of interaction between myself, my professors, and my peers. I have really valued this level of interaction and sharing of ideas.” That said, Barlow has appreciated the supervision system at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, where he elected to spend his third year. “Allowing for small group interactions of an hour or more with professors has been of significant value to me, and something I would like to see on a compulsory basis in the US, rather than office hours.”

The cost of a US education can be daunting to many households, particularly given that the American bachelors degree lasts for four years. Costs can vary from $15,000 (£10,000) to as much as $50,000 (£33,300) a year at an elite university. But with recent tuition hikes in the UK, this point of comparison may be changing. In any case, Barlow urges UK students not to be put off.

“Financial assistance is available,” he insists, “increasingly so for able international applicants, with needs-based aid available from university funds, and grants and scholarships available from other sources.”

Envisage International, an online advisor in international education and cultural exchange offers resources to help international students find financial aid, with an international scholarship database listing thousands of scholarships, fellowships and awards for students.

They also provide study abroad loans for students studying in the US. They recommend that families begin by working on a big picture budget that will include tuition, room and board, transportation, and living expenses. One important aspect of this budget is health insurance, which can be as little as $1,000 (£660) annually for an individual.

Other considerations include the additional expenses of moving and settling in, but Barlow is reassuring: “Relocation can be daunting. However, the support system available in the US is phenomenal, and I felt instantly at ease upon arrival in Chicago, and felt at no disadvantage to US students whatsoever,” he says.

So what good is a liberal arts degree in the job market? Katharine Hansen, a writer for the job-hunting website Quintessential Careers, explains that liberal arts majors may struggle a little more than other majors when launching their careers, but the evidence shows that they tend to advance farther and be more sought out by CEOs for high-level jobs. Buschman agrees that advocates of the liberal arts generally point to the success of their graduates in finding employment, even in competition with graduates with narrow technical training in the specific field. He gives the example of Sky News and their search for a sports commentator. “After a period of disappointing interviews of candidates from the top journalism and broadcasting schools, Sky News hired a liberal arts graduate with a general love, enthusiasm, and knowledge of sport.”

For Buschman, this was a good illustration of the rationale for a liberal arts education in a competitive employment environment. “His formal education had given him no direct link to either telecommunications or sport, and yet he was seen as the best fit for a job involving these areas.”