The idea behind ELAI

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In this entry we would like to briefly present the rationale behind our database, website, and ultimately the whole European Liberal Arts Initiative (ELAI). The rise of liberal arts in Europe is hardly news anymore - it has been around for over three decades. But despite the passage of time, it is not immediately clear what somebody means when they refer to ‘liberal arts’ in the European context. Even scholars present not just different interpretations, but diverse descriptions of the phenomenon. It is fair to conclude that liberal arts are a matter of concern primarily to those Europeans who are already members of liberal arts universities and colleges. ELAI was born out of a feeling that all that has to finally change.

At this first stage, we consider it our task to connect the dots. Articles describing the (re)introduction of liberal arts curricula since the late 1990s were most often snapshots on particular institutions or provided a laundry list of places that was supposed to prove there is a new trend happening. As we know, liberal arts in Europe are an interesting development, especially in the context of recent similarly inspired developments in Asia or the Middle East. But to call it a trend might be an optimistic overstatement, and in Europe, despite the Bologna Process, no educational policy systematically supports a liberal arts education. The first research article published in a renowned journal describing the development of liberal education in Europe and hypothesising on its rationales appeared in 2011 and was written by Prof. Marijk van der Wende, then dean of Amsterdam University College. A list of colleges of liberal arts is also published on the ECOLAS website, and by Modern Liberal Arts at the University of Winchester. Finally, Kara Godwin, a recent PhD from Boston College, made a Global Liberal Arts Inventory, a core outcome of her dissertation (2013) which is unfortunately unpublished. Those list differ in what they include as liberal arts programmes in Europe; they differ in the criteria, or lack thereof, of inclusion; and they are not regularly updated.

ELAI made its first task to compile a list of European liberal arts programmes that would be based on solid research, clear methodology, and feedback from featured institutions. We keep this data source open to everybody, and we would keep it updated as a result of our actions and suggestions from readers. We believe that this is the best way of launching a more impactful research on European liberal arts, and it also would serve as a handy source of information for members of institutions who run liberal arts programmes (or consider starting one in the future). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our ambition is to offer a simple orientational tool for those who just stumbled upon this confusing term and would like to know what is going on - whether they are researchers from around the world, journalists covering new developments in higher education, prospective students or even better their concerned parents.

ELAI database does not provide easy answers to complex issues. We have proposed to divide European liberal arts into five categories (so far), each having a slightly different story and of course with every institution being different. This might explain why almost three decades of liberal arts in Europe have not resulted in a common intellectual movement, visible brand, or even considerable networking at different levels. But we might be getting closer to this moment with maturation of older institutions, critical mass of new ones, and generational progression seen in European liberal arts graduates going out to the world - or back to lead such institutions. ELAI contribution would then first be the one of information and a meeting place for research and practice on liberal arts institutions in Europe.

In the coming posts we would explain in more details the methodology and categories of data collected in ELAI database, as well as further steps that we plan to take. As teamwork believers, we hold solid results over individual glory, and we invite you to contribute to this work in progress. If you have thoughts, suggestions, or corrections, please do not hesitate to contact us at info(at)liberal-arts.eu.

Tim & Daniel

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