By Jonathan

Between paper deadline 1, paper deadline 2, that presentation for course 3 you still need to finish and that coffee you still need to make to stay awake, we sometimes tend to forget the privilege we have to be enrolled in a Liberal Arts and Sciences program in continental Europe. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the history of Liberal Arts and Sciences and why it supports our liberal train of thought.

University College Utrecht is the oldest college in the Netherlands, founded in 1998 by Prof. Dr. Hans Adriaansens. Shortly thereafter he also founded University College Roosevelt under accreditation of Utrecht University. It is no surprise that UCU and UCR see each other as sister colleges and share a similar academic and educational philosophy. Already in 1995, Prof. Adriaansens analysed the importance of academic development in the WRR report “Higher Education in Phases”. Prof. Adriaansens emphasised this academic development, especially achieving a professional level of work and thought by means of personal, social and general education, to be an objective of higher education.

The concept of Liberal Arts dates back to the Aristotelian concept of the education of the free man. The education of the free man should be broad and should include a multitude of sciences. Fast forward to the middle ages, the concept of the Liberal Arts was named as artes liberales and consisted of two groups: the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium included amongst others rhetoric and grammar. The quadrivium included things such as arithmetics (type of maths), geometrics and music. The artes liberales were regarded as the highest form of education, combining the natural with the social sciences without losing touch with the humanities. In Dutch secondary education this was no different: all paths were open for the Latin-mathematics major in the 16th century.

I am particularly fond of Peter Rose’s description of the increase of LAS education in the U.S.: “In contrast to the more pillared structure of most European universities, students of Smith University College […] are expected to take courses, do research, and write papers, in very different disciplines during their first two years. They gradually narrow their focus, closing in on particular fields of study, declaring a major in a single subject area or one that combines several […].” He continues: “Throughout the 19th century, parallel to the growth of the public universities, numbers of new private liberal arts colleges were established in New England.”

From the above, we can see that Prof. Adriaansens, although he is a distinguished sociologist, did not invent LAS himself. In his visits to the U.S., where LAS is much more frequent than on continental Europe, he got in touch with a system yet unknown to the Netherlands. In an interview with Tegenlicht he elaborates on his fondness of the U.S. colleges that employ the LAS system. Especially the mutual engagement amongst students and teachers is large while the organisation is small. “The massification of higher education in the Netherlands contrasts this trend. In the Netherlands, anonymity has been the norm while direct social contact is the most important factor in educational success and intellectual growth.” Reportedly he faced administrative resistance to his radical educational reforms. Under the mantra of “show, don’t tell”, he founded the two colleges under the flag of UU. Rose himself was critical of Prof. Adriaansens’ attempt to implement a broader program.

In the past decade, University Colleges have erupted at almost every University with additional University Colleges still being planned. Prof. Adriaansens vision of education in the Netherlands has turned into reality. Are we done then? Unfortunately, University Colleges students still face questions such as “so what will you actually study?” or “what will you be once you are finished?”. Personally, I often reply with the question “why does a student have to decide what they want to specialize in when they are sixteen?” Shouldn’t we get rid of the specialization altogether? Many things cannot be approached from one perspective: shouldn’t we get rid of the traditional specializations in the high school and bachelor phase as we know them now? The vast majority of the Dutch students do not have the privilege to experience the education of the free mind.

Maybe we should overhaul the entire Dutch education system instead? Let’s make the Liberal Arts and Sciences program the default program in the Netherlands and only specialize during our masters. Let’s go back to the artes liberales model of the middle ages and embrace the Aristotelian concept of the free man. In a society where ‘community related’ or ‘economically lucrative’ are often stated as criteria for good education, we should not forget the cultural and human foundations of our society. Let’s return to education where the free mind is central.