European Liberal Arts Conference 2017, Winchester (UK)

Winchester Conference

On September 1st and 2nd the University of Winchester hosted the second edition of a soon-to-be trilogy of European Liberal Arts (ELA) Conferences, entitled ‘European Liberal Arts Education: renewal and re-formation’. Two years after the first edition which took place at Amsterdam University College, scholars who take interest in liberal arts in general, and specifically represent various approaches to the use of core texts in such education, engaged in lively debates. Winchester, a city with rich history but more importantly a site already offering two distinct programs of liberal arts , has risen to its mission statement as values-driven university that “welcomes people of all faiths and none“. All these ingredients produced a hospitable atmosphere for two days of debate under surprisingly sunny skies of South West England.

We (Daniel Kontowski and Tim Hoff) were lucky to find ourselves among some familiar faces, for example departing long-time president of the American Association of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC) J. Scott Lee, who helped organise both events, but also many people we did not previously had a chance to meet. Equally heartening, the event was populated by senior and mid-career academics who also bear responsibility for administrative side of European liberal arts, among them Rebekah Howes from Winchester to whom goes the largest credit for organising this complex event. Finally, there was a handful from the youngest generation of aspiring liberal arts European scholars (including, but not limited to the undersigned), and students from the Modern Liberal Arts community at Winchester.

ELA conferences attempt to construct a bridge between educational worlds of liberal arts on two continents. The tradition of core texts (a more inclusive version of Great Books) offers a flexible common currency to attract scholars who might otherwise be different in almost any meaningful respect. At ELA 2017 in Winchester both those working in higher education and those who would be qualifying as K-12 in the U.S were in attendance. Secular and sectarian, public and private, small scale and mid-range, degree granting and core curricular programs, conservative and progressive, and with a varying disciplinary background. If they had something in common, we propose those were three things: an interest in philosophy of education, and specifically the role of liberal arts; the attention for pedagogical work happening beyond curricula and buzzwords; and a habit of mind that enjoys indulging in attentive common debate that cares more about collective thinking than destroying the views that we do not share.

While it might be suggested that European participants by and large focused more on the institutional and contemporary, whereas American ones on philosophical and historical, it should also be clearly stated that core texts were present in most of the presentations. The pluralism visible in both the scope and the role that core texts were casted was pluralist in a healthy way, opening new avenues of discussion in ways that too disciplined approaches could not. This was already evident in the various keynote presentations given by a theologian-deputy vice chancellor, two philosophers from the old and the new continent, an opera singer turned physicist and finally literary scholar slash dean of international college. But participants from the US, Canada, England, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany have given talks that further embodied this pluralism, musing during the parallel sessions from text through thought to action – and back.

In a year that has offered no shortage of important news for European liberal arts so far, ELA conference in Winchester can also be seen as another step towards a greater recognition of this form of studies. While core texts approaches are hardly dominant in Europe (as they are no longer in the US), they constitute a valuable addition to the mix of way in which liberal arts can be conceptualized. Their apparent “past” vibe requires putting forward arguments why and how they should/could be included today – and what those core text for today would actually be. ELA provides many things, but most importantly, probably the only arena in Europe where people can fruitfully disagree about exactly that.

Those interested might review the program of the conference here or note in their calendars that the next edition would take place in Navarra in 2019. In all likelihood, following the Amsterdam example, a collected volume would appear from this conference at some point in 2018.

Daniel and Tim

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