Rethinking Liberal Education: Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities

full name / name of organization: 
Dr. Emma Cohen de Lara and Dr. Marco de Waard (Amsterdam University College, the Netherlands).
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First Dutch Symposium of University Colleges

Friday June 14th - Saturday June 15th, 2013

Hosted by Amsterdam University College

Conveners: Dr. Emma Cohen de Lara (AUC) and Dr. Marco de Waard (AUC).

The idea of a liberal arts and sciences education has its roots in the European humanistic tradition, dedicated to a spirit of free inquiry that is not restricted to immediate practical ends. In this broad sense, the liberal arts curriculum typically involved a training in disciplines such as (classical) languages, philosophy, theology, logic and rhetoric, literature, and history. Its aim was articulated in the language of classical ethical and civic ideals – e.g. through notions of character, Bildung, and the good life, and in terms of the need for training social, political and intellectual elites.

Over the last one and a half centuries, those traditional humanistic ideals and principles have lost some (or much) of their meaning and resonance in the institutional context that is provided by European systems of higher education. On the one hand, modern universities have sought to develop into research universities, often at the expense of educational concerns. On the other hand, universities have responded to a growing demand in society for academically trained professionals and specialists, realigning with models of vocational training. More recently, what has complicated these developments is the so-called EU Bologna process, which has introduced a bachelor/master structure and, as well, the opportunity to reinstate programs of higher education that span different disciplines. In this context, several European countries have seen the foundation of university colleges which offer broad, interdisciplinary bachelor degrees in the liberal arts and sciences (LAS). A positive reorientation towards 'humanistic' values such as critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and civic engagement is one important hallmark of the institutional rhetoric surrounding LAS.

Problematically, the academic debate about the principles and practice of a liberal arts and sciences education – what its aims are, why it matters, and how it works – is lagging behind the institutional developments. The possibility of rediscovering the idea of a liberal education is more often simply asserted than investigated, while recent developments in the humanities are hardly drawn upon in rethinking LAS. The present conference seeks to redress this imbalance. It invites reflection on the subject of a liberal arts and sciences education from the perspective of educators as well as scholars working in the humanities and/or related areas such as political theory, legal philosophy, and sociology. In so doing, its main aim is to create a network where sustained dialogue and exchange of ideas and experiences becomes possible. Another, closely related aim is the production – and possibly publication – of scholarly papers on the topic of a liberal arts and sciences education in the contemporary European context.

The organizing committee welcomes papers and / or panel proposals on a range of topics and questions, including but not restricted to:

• What defines a liberal education? What is its mission and purpose in today's world? How does the ideal of a liberal education relate to the contemporary liberal arts and sciences model?
• What different definitions of a liberal education are currently in use, both in the classroom and in the institutional discourse surrounding LAS? How, why, and to what extent are these definitions in need of revision?
• What is the history of liberal education in Europe? How does this history bear on contemporary thinking about the liberal arts and sciences?
• What are good teaching practices in a liberal arts and sciences setting? What courses are best suited to the liberal arts and sciences context?
• What is the role of 'great books' courses based on the American model of liberal education? How could such courses be adapted to the European LAS context?
• Considering the central role of reading and interpretation in a liberal education, what new models of reading, interpretation, and textual analysis are called for in the context of today's LAS colleges and classrooms?
• What are the liberal arts and sciences like from the perspective of one of the 'turns' the humanities have seen in recent decades, such as the 'ethical,' the 'affective,' and the 'digital' or computational turn?
• From a critical humanities perspective, what could be the contribution of the critique of humanism, of antihumanism and posthumanism, to thinking about a liberal arts and sciences education?
• (How) does teaching in the LAS environment challenge – or, indeed, change – established disciplinary paradigms? What kinds of disciplinary re-positioning does the LAS experience invite, e.g. from the perspective of comparative literature, art history, history, cultural analysis, philosophy, or the social sciences?
• Liberation education 'in the age of the adjunct'. What special challenges and opportunities do liberal arts and sciences institutions create for early-career scholars and educators? How can these challenges be negotiated?

We welcome submissions from faculty who teach at Liberal Arts and Sciences colleges, from scholars who specialize in the humanities and related areas, and from others with an interest in the idea and practice of a liberal arts and sciences education. The deadline for paper and / or panel proposals is Saturday, December 1st, 2012 (midnight). Proposals are submitted by sending an abstract of max. 300 words and a brief CV to and You will be notified whether your proposal can be accommodated by early January 2013.

Each speaker receives a slot of 25 minutes for his/her talk, plus 15 minutes for discussion (40 minutes in total). Speakers will be asked to circulate a draft of their paper among the panelists ca. one month in advance of the conference.

The conference program, including information about keynote speakers, panels, and venue, will be announced in due course.

It is possible that the organizers need to charge a conference fee. Information about this will be published on the conference website.