The book “What is liberal education - and what could it be? European students on their liberal arts education” has been published in October. It can be viewed online here, while those from all over the world who are faithful to reading in paper are more than welcome to order one through a form.
ELAI joined the editors in their plea to liberal arts students and alumni in Europe to reflect on their paths. We are happy to publish today a piece by Freya Tilleman – Alumna of Liberal Arts and Sciences programme at University College Maastricht (2014-2017).
When I was still a student at the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme at UCM, people used to blame me for having no idea what I was doing, nor any idea as to where I was going with my studies. But for me, it were not the subjects that were most important to me, rather the act of studying itself. In the end, I believe education is a means to becoming a responsible citizen – the profession I am studying helps define me as a person and thus as a citizen, but my choice of profession does not tell me why or how I want to become this responsible citizen. This to me is the paradox of studying: are we primarily at university for personal curiosity or is our main purpose to contribute to a better and more informed society by choosing a profession? Are we here to acquire a broad understanding of the world at large, or are we here to become extremely knowledgeable in a specific discipline? To understand what the purpose of a university is in general, one needs to go one step further than looking at students flipping through pages of books and browsing through scientific articles: one needs to consider why to study at all.
My story started not only with academic ambitions but also with the fact that I am a “Do It Yourself”-girl who happens to want to “Know It Herself” too. And since I believe that becoming a responsible citizen also entails knowing about stuff, the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme seemed perfect in order to combine my (academic) endeavors. For me, the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme was so special exactly because it has granted me access to the broad knowledge and skills that allow me to become a responsible citizen, while also paving the path to a specialisation that I could pursue after the programme, in order to become the informed citizen I would like to be. The generality of the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme is in my eyes its strength, since I would consider most of the stuff I learned during my studies to be general knowledge that every responsible and informed citizen should have. This is also why I felt unable to choose between studies when I was 18: there were so many things I felt like I should know, want to know, and need to know before I would be able to successfully integrate and contribute to today’s society. How do I know who to vote for when I know so little about politics? How can I make my own little change to save the world if I have never studied sustainability? How can I know about the positives and pitfalls of banking if no one ever explained to me how it works? Most people would tell me that I cannot know everything and should thus rely on others. However, to me, the knowledge needed to answer these questions for myself seemed essential in order to make responsible choices.
If scientists found out about a brilliant method to generate alternative energy, but no one could phrase it in terms of a practical policy, and politicians would not understand enough of it to explain it to the public, our society would fail to work effectively. I believe that society needs people who can bridge the gaps between professionals of different disciplines, between researchers and policy makers. We are not doing so bad, but I think that we can reach the idealistic state of a sustainable, fully democratic and inclusive society faster. That is, if people would think critically about a wide range of subjects, interlink them, and share their perspectives in order to bring new ideas to the subject at hand. By interacting with people from different cultures and different fields we can get better at bridging those gaps, and that is exactly what a liberal education can teach us. All in all, we need citizens who know about the world they live in, and who understand enough of it to improve the community’s functioning in the wider context of life, not just in their specialisation. Those who cannot bridge the gaps do not understand the impact their actions have on others, since they get stuck in their own perspective of seeing things. For me, this is one explanation of why sustainability is still not part of mainstream mentality.
A curriculum that enables you to be a creative, independent thinker might be more valuable to the goal of bridging gaps than a programme teaching you detailed knowledge, even if this programme does not provide you with the same depth of knowledge that you would acquire in other studies. Whereas generally students study to become a specialist in a certain profession, I study because I am curious; because I want to unravel the why; and because I want to actively engage with the literature. As long as the learning is challenging but fair, and complex but interesting, I will be able to motivate myself more than someone who might study merely for the sake of getting a degree. A curriculum like mine might have somehow lacked direction - trying to navigate through the labyrinth of academic papers - yet it pressured me to choose exactly what I was passionate about and what I was good at. I had to constantly re-evaluate my choices until I was able to convincingly say that I had found my absolute and specific field of interest. The discipline students end up with using this process can exist of any combination of subjects, and it might be a combination impossible to find somewhere else, such as philosophy and maths, or data mining and psychology. By trying out courses addressing my different interests, I found out what I desire to be good at, instead of guessing and hoping I made the right choice at 18.
A Liberal Arts and Sciences education is also about prioritising interests. When I was 18, my range of interests was so broad that I could have ended up almost anywhere: would I want to become an industrial designer, or study French, or engage myself in landscape architecture, and what about animal science or global development studies? I did not want to give up any of my interests, but it seemed impossible to combine them. The Liberal Arts and Sciences programme taught me to appreciate all my interests, but to leave out what was just an interest and to pursue what was more: using my extracurricular activities to stay in touch with my creative and active side, doing a semester abroad at a francophone university to continue learning languages, and combining sciences, social sciences and humanities in such a way that I felt like I was bridging gaps indeed.
Besides discovering my core discipline - geography and environmental science, the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme has given me much more: I was immersed in the most active, socially engaging and caring community I have ever experienced. A community that in my eyes is the example of what an almost-perfect society would look like. And isn't that what we all want to become part of in the end? A community of respectful individuals, critical thinkers and conscious explorers – things we can all become if we really want to. I might not be the perfect chemist after my Liberal Arts and Sciences education, or a know-it-all on political theory, but I have gotten a lot closer to becoming a responsible citizen. I know how to make informed choices, and l know how to argue for what I stand for. I know how to deal with stress – or at least I know how not to deal with it – and I have learned to sometimes lean back and just enjoy the learning, because learning is something that, as all know, never ends.
Freya Tilleman is a 22-year old graduate (2017) from University College Maastricht. Her academic interests span across a range of disciplines including chemistry, science and technology studies, geography, languages and programming. As a part of her Bachelors, she spent a semester at the Université de Montréal in Québec, Canada. In her studies she strived for creating a connection between environmental science and the socio-cultural side of sustainability and geography. Her bachelor thesis took a humanities-related approach to the environmental issue of sand mining and its workers. She currently takes a gap year in Sweden and France before hoping to continue studying with a Masters programme in either environmental science or global sustainability science.