Liberal Arts in Sweden – Insights from a young researcher

Liberal arts in Sweden - insights from a young researcher

From its beginning in 2017, ELAI has been striving to include in its coverage the developments of European liberal arts initiatives in languages other than English. Another important factor was the relevance of empirical research to complement perspectives of educational philosophy and the work of advocacy. And of course, much of the work of ELAI has to do with the perspectives of young people who care and worry about the developments of liberal education. It is not every day that we manage to weave all three together.

But this is one of those days. We are extremely happy to introduce Viktor Johansson from Gothenburg, a recent double graduate of Bachelor in Education Studies and Sociology. His 2017 Bachelor’s thesis was titled “Bildningens Pionjärer och deras Utmaningar: Liberal Arts som motstånd mot instrumentell utbildning” (or for those who still need to improve their Swedish literacy: “Educational pioneers and their challenges: Liberal Arts as resistance to instrumental education”). Viktor’s work combines theoretical perspective on higher education with a questionnaire- and interview-based empirical study of the rather radical degree: (BA) Liberal Arts Programme at the University of Gothenburg, which started in 2011.

Viktor has agreed to write a few words about his fascinating study.

Liberal Arts as resistance to neoliberal governance?

It was about one and a half year ago that I started to work on my bachelor thesis. I knew I wanted to research something about how neoliberal logic is penetrating the universities of Sweden – making them more and more instrumental and work oriented. I myself had experienced that first hand during my own Bachelor programme in Educational Science. What I mean is that my education would result in a bachelor degree and not a teacher’s permit, so the answer to the question everyone asks “What will you work with?” was not so simple. I found this dynamic of studying a non-instrumental subject when the view on university education is becoming so instrumental highly interesting.

Within the University of Gothenburg, one programme stands out even more in this regard, and that is the Liberal Arts Programme. The aim of my study was therefore to better understand the studying of the Liberal Arts Programme (BA) from a student perspective. I wanted to understand how students of Liberal Arts view their own education in relation to the rest of the university.

I used a multi method-approach with register data, the carrying out of a short survey and several in depth interviews. Theoretically I drew upon Foucault’s notion of power/knowledge and resistance. I supplemented with concepts from Martha Nussbaum and Stephen J. Ball.

The study showed that students of the Liberal Arts Programme where met with skepticism, incomprehension, and questioning by their surroundings to such a degree that it became a sorting mechanism from the programme: Only the most convinced students would choose to remain on the programme, and those were strengthened in their belief of the capabilities acquired by the programme. In their final semester, only three students remained from the original 30.

Gothenburg BA Liberal arts cohort sizes in spring 2017

Year of admittance

Fall 2014

Fall 2015

Fall 2016





Registered upon start




Completed at least some credit points by fall 2016




In my thesis I perceived this as on the one hand that the students are being exposed to processes of governance and normalization in order to fold into more instrumental education, but that on the other hand some student are engaged in a resistance against such processes. Both explicitly and implicitly the students expressed a resisting attitude against the general education system and instrumental university studies. They refuse to accept the normalizing discourses about how and what to study.

”Well I think that those who are left are more like ’fuck you’ of you don’t want to understand this then it’s your problem and not mine” (Interviewee Alex, my translation)

Another way to understand these results is that only the students with the highest resources can afford to stay on studying a programme with such unclear workforce-connection. The Liberal Arts programme could in that case be considered elitist, but the student in my study didn’t seem to fit any regular conception of an elite since they had very varied socio-economic and educational/family educational background. For this reason I found the Foucauldian interpretation more fruitful: students can be conceived of as resisting a neoliberal governance to join more “productive” university programmes.

Given the above, it should not surprise anyone that the future of Liberal Arts in Sweden seems quite ambiguous. As the Humanities in general, the Liberal Arts does not seem to go hand in hand with the developments of the neoliberal university. Young people interested in learning some broader intellectual culture at the university are alienated from the logic of the contemporary university as workforce development centre. As in some ancient myths, those students now find themselves trapped in between larger forces, trying to make sense of it all - and themselves - in the process.

Victor Johansson

P.S. The full thesis is available here.

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