Discussion A Liberal Arts Education

by Guest Blog _______3rd April 2019

This post was written by Phoebe Graham. Phoebe Graham is a final year Liberal Arts student at the University of Bristol. She majors in English Literature, with wider interests in History, Cultural Memory and Theatre & Performance Studies. She has recently returned from a year studying abroad at McGill University in Montreal. Within and alongside her studies across the Arts and Humanities, she is particularly interested in researching the intersection of Arts activism and the politics of memory, having been recently chosen to attend a course on post-conflict politics and democracy out in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the human rights charity Most-Mira and the City University of New York’s EU Studies Centre. She is also currently working as a Student Fellow for the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.

I can’t claim to know all that much about the wider pedagogical landscape or research regarding the measured impact of Liberal Arts study in higher education, but I guess I’m here as a kind of interdisciplinary case study. I hope to break down quickly where I came from – and how my background inspired me to pursue a degree in Liberal Arts – where I am now, and where I hope both myself and the kind of education that I have received, will go in the future.


What seems like millions of light years ago now, I had a really inspiring teacher at sixth form – the kind that stays with you forever as an invisible beacon of guidance that you always seem to end up turning back to in life.


His name was Mr Kosmaczewski, or Mr Kos for short. He was my History Teacher and IB coordinator. He knew everything about everything and could connect the dots across such a range of disciplines, from History to Languages to Literature to Philosophy, in such a brilliant, natural and kind manner.


I say this because I remember very clearly before the intense IB exam period, my year group were all sat together in a small assembly like a herd of terrified baby deer in the headlights. But Mr Kos reassured us. If I remember correctly, he said ‘Don’t worry, you have your education now, and no one can take that away from you. The exams are just the finer details.’


And this really stuck with me, the idea of an education that is not simply there to tick the boxes of a qualification, or not simply the sum total of your A-Level, IB or degree grade. But rather a vision of an education that is fully yours, fully entwined, composed and brought to life by your character as well as your pursuit and combination of interests. I guess the exposure to this ethos and approach to education at that age is what really inspired me to take Liberal Arts into Higher Education.


My teacher’s words also remind me of something Carl Gombrich wrote on his blog, which I was looking up the other day. Carl is the head of the Arts & Sciences course at UCL, who is about to set up and lead an interdisciplinary university in London (which is so exciting). He wrote ‘In many ways, even if this sort of interdisciplinary education will line you up for the best jobs, that is not the most exciting thing it can do for you. No, the most exciting thing is that is allows you to create your own intellectual universe, to speak with your own intellectual voice.’


And I think this intellectual independence that Carl alludes to here is something I was looking for. I didn’t want to be a slave to the boundaries of how a particular discipline is thought to work, as I saw these boundaries as permeable and fluid. I wanted to create my own intellectual playing field of experimentation, and it was within this playfulness that I felt the most interested, excited, creative and motivated. For me, humanistic ideas come into fruition through disciplinary tension and interaction – a ‘No man is an island’ vibe, and the same goes for disciplines.


At that age I just felt in the same way that I could not be reduced to just my thoughts, or just my biological make-up, or just the language I spoke, or just the past that lay behind me, I didn’t feel like studying a single subject was an accurate representation of how I felt about both education, and more importantly the world around me.


And so I decided to take the leap. And it certainly felt like a leap at the time. Bristol was only in its second year of running the course, so it felt completely new – especially when constantly being asked by other students ‘What exactly is Liberal Arts?’, which I’m sure many of us still get.


Some people like to play devil’s advocate and identify the Liberal Artist as a generalist, over the socially favoured specialist – we are branded a jack of all trades and a master of none. But I firmly believe that my study across a range of disciplines actually strengthens my critical faculties and understanding of the different disciplines I work within and between. To be able to take a single subject matter and to look at it with a kaleidoscopic perspective (the kind that Dr Sarah Dillon would more officially call ‘synchronic interdisciplinarity’) has really brought so much to me, my sense of empathy, social awareness, abilities in communication – especially developed through the foreign language aspect of my course – and a sense of myself as a global citizen.


Which brings me on to my experience of Liberal Arts in the international context. Last year, I studied abroad at McGill University in Montreal. The prospect of undertaking the Liberal Education that is so naturally embedded into their education system was so unbelievably exciting for me, and still is today.


If I was ever in a single class, there would be students from all types of majors and minors. It was really nice not to be the interdisciplinary odd-one-out for once, or as I term it, an academic orphan. It was great to see everyone being their own orphans through their personally tailored degree structure, and as such I always felt part of a wider academic community.


I think the flexibility of learning permitted at McGill also made for a really innovative assessment system, where you would be able to tailor assignments to your own expertise or general interests. But even in the format of the assessment itself, the Liberal ethos allowed for such a range of formats. Presentations, Museum Reviews, Seminar leading, Creative writing tasks, take home exams, longer research projects, ongoing creative diaries…the freedom of interdisciplinary education entailed a sort of freedom of mind and structure in terms of the way your ideas could be expressed.


And so, what of the future? In terms of higher education, it seems that we are entering into a cultural era where elitist and more pedagogically rigid traditions of education are beginning to be questioned and deconstructed against the backdrop of technological advancements, which is giving us democratic and anti-disciplinary access to information and expertise.


And I think, within these cultural shifts, Liberal Arts and Sciences degrees have arisen to advocate for a kind of education where the personal, the creative, and the intellectual can be developed in tandem and in collaboration with one another, where new links can be made. This also seems vital against such a cultural backdrop where quote ‘soft skills’ are being ever more desired in this world of technological connection, yet personal isolation.


And for myself – How does one make an interdisciplinary approach to life? This is now the question I’m asking myself. I don’t see myself in one single job, and I think it’s realistic now for Arts students to expect a portfolio career, of which I think Liberal Arts students are really well prepared for. So far I’ve collected experience in Arts management, Arts activism, Journalism, Pedagogy, International Relations and humanitarian work. So while I came in and probably will go out of this degree quite clueless about the road I’d like to travel, I think harnessing the variegated energy of that cluelessness is exactly what’s going to propel me into the future. Hopefully, my diversity of skills and knowledge will help me, and all of us here today, to stand out in confronting what lies ahead.