On January 31st, 2019, Professor Dr. Teun J. Dekker was officially appointed Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Education in Maastricht. He based his inaugural speech on the book “On the 7 Disciplines” by the roman scholar Martianus Cappela. Key principles of the LAS education have always been the connection between loving to learn and doing good for the society. Nonetheless, LAS education has been implemented and interpreted differently over the years. In Europe, LAS education has been introduced only about 20 to 30 years ago, despite this, there are more than 80 universities offering a Bachelor in LAS, currently. More specifically, 4’030 students started a LAS education in the Netherlands in 2018, making the program the 6th most popular in the nation. Now onto the so called 7 democratic virtues of liberal education:
- Epistemic Humility
Staying humble about one’s own knowledge is the key when entering a discussion. Through the LAS education students learn that “the very notion of truth can be questioned,” and so they should never be too sure of the facts they state. Another student states, in relation to the first virtue, that “this kind of an education makes you more humble. It teaches you that your way is not the only way.”
- Critical Thinking
Furthermore, the LAS education encourages students to keep an open mind to different perspectives, while not accepting narratives uncritically. When in- and outside of the classroom, students challenge opinions and approach facts with caution. As some students have stated “you learn a certain way of thinking and develop a sort of open mind, also to approach any disciplinary question and to be able to navigate. Not always be stuck with one field;” “to always question, always be critical about it, always try to get deeper into” a discussion. At Dutch University Colleges students are “pushed to see all the boundaries that are set upon you by society or your personality or psychology or whatever. […] Once you recognise them, you can overcome them and maybe see how you can free yourself from them and distance yourself from them.”
- Sense of Self
Contributions by students in from of their own knowledge, experiences and expertise are supported by fellow pupils, staff and lecturers. Each student is able to define his/her own identity, decide what he/she values and develop his/her own interests. The LAS education promotes personal development by, what some students argue, pushing students towards their limits. “If you go to your limit, you can see that your true moral character is revealed. It is under circumstances of stress that you are most yourself. I think that this LAS concept can really push people to moments of personal stress, or academic stress, or social stress. It really shapes people in one direction or another, which I think is good.” However, University Colleges promote a sense of self in more ways than the one mentioned above. By being able to design a personal curriculum students get a sense of ownership. “No one else has this curriculum and I decided to do exactly this.”
- Sense of Others
Being able to understand other people, who come from different backgrounds and have diverse perspectives, is a key principle at University Colleges. If a student understands the impact of his/her actions, a better citizen is created. A student explains what this virtue means to him: “You also need to know, okay, why would they disagree with me in the first place? Is there a reason why they don’t like my idea? Then you have to yes, place yourself in the other person.” Nonetheless, through the international student body of University Colleges, one is in contact with people from diverse backgrounds, with languages one might have never heard before and is able to interact with them. In relation to this, a student stated that “it made me more tolerant. It made me more open. It made me more relaxed in just being around difference.”
The ability to not continue an argument or discussion, but to put one’s differences aside and come to a jointly created and jointly owned decision, is at the center of the LAS education. Over the years “you have to [compromise] and then do it again, and get feedback and get re-evaluated, make your own experiences. That’s something that this liberal arts program’s done to me for a long time.” In classroom setting a student may encounter “a group and you all have the same vision and you want to work on this one thing in pretty much the same way, perfect, and reach a compromise and sometimes you’re a bunch of people who all have their own ideas. Everyone wants to do their thing and then you need to find a way to work with that, to reconcile those different ideas.” And so the LAS education encourages students to learn to compromise, as then both sides can consider the outcome a victory.
- Knowledge of Common Problems
Through the education at University Colleges, students get to know information about a range of (social) issues. Through the curriculum students are encouraged to take classes outside one’s major, broadening one’s horizon. As this section of an interview demonstrates: “In my case, I think that after this I will be able to have expertise in some regions of biomedicine, but I will also know something about religion, about literature, about music even, about cultural studies and I will be able to contrast these expert opinions on protein function in the cell. I will be able to talk about this in relation to other things that I have touched upon. Of course, I don’t have expert knowledge in literature, but that’s a little bit of knowledge I can take, and which will make me better.”
- Sense of Democracy
What is meant by this is the ability to adapt one’s behaviour in order for one’s actions to aid the community. If there is an honest desire to do so, a person probably is better off than if following one’s own desires. A student stated that “I liked using my strengths for others and for making others happy and contributing and doing something good.” LAS education stimulates the sense of responsibility and obligation for the greater good: “Having an on-campus community teaches you that there is something beyond yourself. There’s a community that we all live in that’s beyond yourself. And participating in extracurricular activities, which I think is a big part of LAS, helps you develop yourself and develops how you behave in a community. Which, then will be reflected in how you behave in a society as a good citizen.”
Ultimately, liberal arts and sciences education is a program that is gaining the attention and interest of the general public. It is a complex phenomenon, which has been implemented differently across space and time. Meanwhile the seven democratic virtues of liberal education explain the motive behind the LAS education, our education today is much more than that.