Building Liberal Arts Program

1 Liberal Arts & Sciences: The Cognitive and Moral Aspect of Knowledge

ECOLAS is about Liberal Arts & Sciences colleges or programs. In Anglo-Saxon countries this term applies to undergraduate university education. The defining characteristic of this type of education is its academic, as opposed to vocational, orientation. A Liberal Arts & Sciences degree prepares students for graduate programs, for research, as well as for the professions that require an academic degree. Not only do well-known colleges such as Amherst and Smith subscribe to this philosophy, but research universities like Harvard and Berkeley also organize their undergraduate divisions along the lines of this model.

 

Although this concept is new to Dutch (and most European) universities, it fits extremely well into our educational system. It is typical for the various levels of professional or vocational education in this country to be built upon a preceding level of general education. If we continue this line of thought, the university’s graduate educational level (which is in fact a high-level professional education) should be preceded by a tertiary, in this case academic, form of general education. That is essentially what a Liberal Arts & Sciences college is about, and what has been made possible by the Bologna agreement. The added value of such a Liberal Arts & Science program lies in the emphasis on academic formation or Bildung. There are two main elements to this, the first of these being the cognitive – or knowledge –element. Essential to the program is the acquisition of academic qualities such as critical and independent thinking, the ability to collect and analyse data, to critically assess them, and the ability to think beyond the given data. But the cognitive element is only one aspect of academic formation. Typical for this philosophy is the connection between cognitive and moral competencies. Liberal Arts & Sciences stands for ‘education’ in the true sense of the word that is combining knowledge with moral alertness. Students and faculty display a high level of civic engagement, of moral commitment. They want to make a difference in the world and see knowledge as a means to inform their idealism so as to make their activities more effective.

 

 

2 Various Models of LAS in Europe

 

Liberal Arts & Sciences programs can be organized in a variety of ways: in ‘colleges’ as either stand-alone facilities (like the Roosevelt Academy or BISLA) or as branches of bigger universities (like UCU, UCM and AUC). In many cases, particularly in the United States, entire undergraduate divisions of universities are organized along the lines of the LAS philosophy. Some of these colleges and universities, also in Europe, are privately funded, others depend on public funding. Some are international (like all the above-mentioned colleges), others are national. Some focus on a variety of disciplines, others are more thematically oriented. But the bottom line of all Liberal Arts & Sciences programs, independent from the more formal aspects of their organization, is that their focus is on:

  • undergraduate or bachelor’s education;
  • academic orientation and not immediately on vocational or professional training;
  • the combination of the cognitive and moral dimensions of knowledge;
  • undergraduate research and the development of an investigative mind;
  • preparing students for either graduate programs in research or other professions.

 

3 The Case of the Roosevelt Academy: Context, Teaching, Research and Organization

If the LAS concept is to be more than a mere philosophy, it needs to be implemented in the actual teaching, research and organization processes. There are many ways of doing so, even though several key elements always recur in Liberal Arts and Sciences institutions. I will now look at how the Roosevelt Academy in Middelburg, the Netherlands, an international honours college affiliated to Utrecht University, has implemented this philosophy in four of its crucial aspects: ‘context’, ‘teaching’, ‘research’ and ‘organization’. The context in which the Roosevelt Academy operates supports the connection between cognitive and moral reasoning is due to the following circumstances:

• RA has chosen Middelburg as its base, away from the traditional university centres in the Netherlands. Given the availability of impressive faculty buildings (such as the Gothic Town Hall), excellent facilities for culture, libraries and laboratories, a large amount of student accommodation and strong support from the local and provincial government, RA could already develop a strong association with the region and thereby implement its philosophy of ‘reaching out’.

• The sense of responsibility is further strengthened by the residential character of RA: the students are expected to live on the campus so that their educational process does not only happen within formal educational settings. The RA dormitories form a campus that is right in the heart of the city. Faculty members also live near RA and thereby are an intrinsic part of RA’s academic community. The teaching at RA is also aimed at achieving a balance of cognitive and moral reasoning.

• The international make up of RA’s student body helps Dutch students to become more international. Students learn to debate social, cultural, moral and cognitive issues and appreciate the various angles from which such issues can be approached.

• There are strict rules concerning attendance and participation. A system of continuous assessment means there are no retakes. Every course is evaluated by students in order to inform both the instructor and the department.

• RA has a set of well-defined rules and procedures to foster a sense of responsibility. There are deadlines, rules of conduct, rules for student exchanges, rules on academic ‘standing’ and ‘probation’, etc.

Research – the third aspect – is also vitally important to university education and certainly also to undergraduate departments. In fact, undergraduate education is about how to do research, how to develop an investigative mind. In order to ensure that research plays its part in connecting the cognitive and the moral dimension of knowledge in our Liberal Arts & Sciences institution, it should include a broader range of research projects than what is normally practiced in the graduate divisions of universities: research projects that typically deal with questions that are important for the Academy’s immediate surroundings and research projects in which students and faculty work together. These projects can be part of regular courses, individual research projects by students or honours theses. This type of research enables students to practice setting up a research project, decide upon its parameters and interpret relevant findings. This benefits both instructors and the community.

 

Organization is the fourth aspect to be affected by the Liberal Arts & Sciences philosophy. In this the combination of knowledge and responsibility should be evident. That is why our full-time instructors are also tutors, why Heads of Department teach courses next to their managerial tasks, why the Dean is not only an administrator, but also interviews all prospective students and why students are encouraged to take part in extra-curricular activities from which both the campus and the city might benefit.
The way in which the philosophy is implemented in these four aspects – context, teaching, research and organization – guarantees a high level of Bildung or academic formation. Not only will it serve as a platform for interesting ‘academic’ positions, it also guarantees a smooth connection with graduate programs in the Netherlands and abroad. As it generates a high percentage of graduates it effectively contributes to the so-called “Lisbon objective”, of a higher number of university graduates in this country.

 

Hans Adriaansens,
Founding Dean of University College Roosevelt and University College Utrecht