Back to the future with a liberal education

Breadth vs depth continues to be at the heart of many debates about the education system of the future. Although Britain was once the home of a ‘liberal education’, over the past half century or so it has (generally) moved to become the home of early specialisation. Our university system has been designed to link with this approach, one which is very different from the system that I grew up with in the US.

Like everyone else, I would like to achieve the right blend of both worlds. I am a passionate advocate of interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and learning and of innovative methods which encourage students to think in an interdisciplinary way. I am very clear about the ethos of St Mary’s: it is predicated on breadth. However, we balance this with high levels of achievement in the specialised environment of the UK A Level syllabus.

At St Mary’s, as well as rigorous A Level achievement, we teach the girls to make connections across their subjects, integrating their thinking between the humanities and sciences, and connecting this to the global context.  This is borne out by the girls’ interconnected achievements in music, art, drama, sport, and community service. The St Mary’s education fosters precisely the kind of attributes and dispositions that we absolutely know the world needs: resilience, leadership and teamwork.

We are also focused on encouraging our girls to think differently – stereotypically, not a strength of girls’ education, perhaps.

In his new book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink postulates that globalisation, material abundance, and technological advancements are driving us in the West beyond the Information Age into what he terms ‘the Conceptual Age.’  His theory is that the Conceptual Age will require workers with different skill sets: workers who are creative thinkers, who understand design concepts, who are ‘big-picture thinkers’, who are empathic listeners, who have emotional intelligence, and who intentionally pursue the meaning of life. He is not suggesting that analytical skills, which our culture currently prizes, will not also be honoured. Instead, he is suggesting that successful individuals must be able to synthesise both their analytical and their conceptual skill sets to new ends.

I am sure that the doorway to this is far more likely to be a liberal education than a purely specialised one, based on in-depth knowledge of a few areas.

I was therefore concerned to hear next to nothing about the breadth vs depth debate from David Willetts (the Minister for Universities and Science) in his public lecture, ‘The Future of Higher Education’ at Brunel University last week. His plan seemed much more based on growth in numbers, which will somehow produce a renaissance in the UK economy. It is already frustrating that many leading UK universities operate an admissions’ system which barely acknowledges the extraordinary, educational power of sport, music, art, drama, and favours commitment to a single discipline over wider extra-curricular attainments – skills as a sportswoman, debater, fundraiser, member of a Young Enterprise company, for instance.  David Willetts did not question the current model of three years of narrow specialisation offered by universities, so presumably we are to see yet more students subjected to an outmoded approach to teaching and learning. This system is surely ripe for reform.

Personally, I think it is time we acknowledged that a truly educated person today is one prepared for a world far more complex and changeable than their parents’ world, and for jobs that may not yet exist. The conventional career ladder is already being replaced by what has been described as a ‘career lattice’ where they will move upwards laterally, stop and then start in new directions.

To their great credit, some universities (such as Winchester with its Modern Liberal Arts Course, Southampton and Warwick) are already waking up to the fact that young people want courses that provide opportunities for broad and flexible thinking, and they want to develop the sorts of transferable skills Daniel Pink talks about in his book, which they will need for this new type of career progression. Employers too are equally clear about the value of skills such as abstract reasoning, problem-solving, communication and teamwork. These are not the preserve of one subject specialisation, and are precisely the skills which are honed in a broad interdisciplinary education, such as we have here at Calne.