Liberal Arts Conference. October 14th 2014

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TES and THE are proud to be media partners for this event and we are very proud that they are too!

The conference took place at King’s College, The Strand, London, on October 14th 2014. The point of the event was to look at the current thinking about the liberal arts in universities and in schools, to find common ground and discuss ideas about how to develop the liberal arts’ place in the ongoing debate about the future of English education.

The conference inspired, provoked, entertained and informed in equal measure and you can watch the footage here thanks to the generosity and hard work of staff and students from Newham Sixth Form College:

The last talk, a superb lecture on Michael Oakeshott by Jesse Norman MP, chaired by Nick Pearce,  unfortunately was not filmed but the audio is available here:


Here is a list of some of the speakers (followed by their biographies and a collection of pieces about what they currently feel the issues might be or things that they intend to talk about).

Jesse Norman MP

Nick Pearce

Dr. Frank Furedi

Claire Fox

Amanda Spielman

Carl Gombrich

Dr John L. Taylor

Dr. Aaron Rosen

Eddie Playfair

Tricia Kelleher

Marc Sidwell

Stuart Lock

Dr. Mike Dobson

Tony Sewell

Hywel Jones

Martin Robinson

Biographies and some ideas as to current thinking about the liberal arts and some pointers as to what might be discussed at the conference:

Jesse Norman MP:

Jesse Norman was educated at Oxford University (BA) and at University College London (MPhil, PhD). Among other things he has run an educational project in Communist Eastern Europe, been a director at BZW, and taught philosophy at UCL and Birkbeck College. He serves on the boards of the Roundhouse and the Hay Festival, and is a member of Council at NIESR, the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, as well as working with numerous charitable and philanthropic organisations in Herefordshire.

Jesse’s books and pamphlets include The Achievement of Michael Oakeshott (ed.), After Euclid, Compassionate Conservatism, and The Big Society. He writes regularly in the national press.

In 2010 Jesse was elected as the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and as a member of the Treasury Select Committee. He was chosen as Parliamentarian of the Year and Backbencher of the Year in 2012. In 2013 he was asked to join the Policy Board at 10 Downing Street. Jesse’s most recent book, a biography of the 18th Century statesman Edmund Burke, has been widely acclaimed.

Dr. Frank Furedi:

Author and broadcaster. Furedi is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England and Visiting Professor, Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London

Furedi has published widely about controversies relating to issues such as health, parenting children, food and new technology. His studies on childhood and parenting are oriented towards exploring the obstacles that stand in the way of young people gaining independence intellectually and socially.

Furedi has written extensively about issues to do with education and cultural life. His study, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? deals with the lowering of expectations in cultural and intellectual life in contemporary western societies. His book, Wasted: Why Education Is Not Educating deals with the disturbing tendency to devalue the status of knowledge in the curriculum and with the erosion of adult authority on schooling. He is passionately committed to promoting the ideals of a humanists education and his writings on higher education are devoted to affirming the value of the liberal arts. At present he is working on the cultural history of The Reader.

Keynote : Why Liberal education Matters

Liberal education is under siege. Instrumental and utilitarian critics insist that it is not relevant to a rapidly changing world. Those obsessed with turning education into a social engineering projects denounce the humanist curriculum as elitist. In turn, those disposed towards an elitist outlook claim that liberal education is not suitable for the masses since only a tiny minority could benefit from it. These retrograde sentiments are reinforced by the gimmicky consumerist ethos sweeping education in the Anglo-American world. From this standpoint, liberal education is clearly not value for money and needs to give way to the philistine world of flipped class-rooms, MOOCs and related fads. The aim of this introduction is to explain why that these narrow minded criticisms of liberal education reflect a loss of belief in the transformative potential of education. It will argue that humanist education is essential for cultivation of a free, democratic and intellectually stimulating society.

Amanda Spielman:

Amanda is the Chair of Ofqual

Dr. Aaron Rosen:

Dr. Aaron Rosen is the Lecturer in Sacred Traditions & the Arts at King’s College London, where he is also Deputy Director of the BA in Liberal Arts, which he helped design. He taught previously at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia Universities, after receiving his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He has written widely for popular and scholarly publications including The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Apollo, New Humanist, Los Angeles Times, Times Higher Education, Jewish Quarterly, Literary Review, Art and Christianity, Religion and the Arts, and Literature and Theology. His first book was entitled Imagining Jewish Art (Legenda, 2009). He is currently editing the forthcoming volume Religion and Art in the Heart of Modern Manhattan (Ashgate, 2015) and writing two books: Art and Religion in the 21st Century (Thames and Hudson, 2015) and The Hospitality of Images: Art & Interfaith Dialogue.

Aaron’s thoughts on the liberal arts are here.

Claire Fox:

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint. She has a particular interest in education and social issues such as crime and mental health. Claire convenes the yearly Battle of Ideas festival, which will next take place at the Barbican in London in October 2014. She is a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio programmes such as Question Time, and Any Questions? She is also a columnist for TES (Times Education Supplement) and MJ (Municipal Journal).

Dr John L. Taylor: 

Head of Philosophy at Rugby School. Formerly a tutor in Philosophy at Oxford University, he has been extensively involved in the promotion of philosophical approaches to education, in particular through the medium of project work. He initiated the ‘Perspectives on Science’ AS level course in the history and philosophy of science. He helped shape development of the Extended Project Qualification through its pilot phase and has been a Chief Examiner of the qualification since its launch. In his book Think Again: A Philosophical Approach to Teaching, John Taylor argues that education can be enriched through the exploration of the philosophical element of all learning. Taylor’s work promoting philosophy in schools has featured in the Times, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Times Educational Supplement and the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC website. He has been a contributing author and editor of a number of education books. His latest book, ‘100 Ideas for teaching Philosophy and Ethics’ will be published by Bloomsbury in November 2014.

Taylor’s thoughts on the liberal arts:

Contemporary education is at constant risk of distortion due to the pressure created by an assessment-driven approach to teaching and learning. Immeasurable harm has been done by the assumption that only measureable outcomes matter. This utilitarian conception of education leads to an etiolated pedagogy, in which factual recall is prioritized over the development of deeper, critical reflection, an appreciation of ambiguity and uncertainty, and the formation of a synoptic understanding of the conceptual structure of knowledge. Nor is this simply a problem with educational consequences; the dominance of passive learning in the classroom affects social and political culture, tending to reduce scope for the formation of the capacity for critical, reflective enquiry on which the health of liberal democracy depends. The best antidote to the reduction of true education to a mechanistic process of spoon-fed training is the provision of curriculum space for philosophical reflection at all points of the education process.

Dr Simon Usherwood:

Associate Dean for Learning & Teaching in the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences of the University of Surrey, and Programme Director of the BA/BSc Liberal Arts & Sciences degree. With a background in Politics and European Studies, Dr Usherwood is also active in publishing on the use of simulation games in HE and in supporting the development of learning and teaching more generally.

Usherwood believes that the current issues in the Liberal Arts are:
There are two main issues that strike me as central in the development of Liberal Arts in the UK. Firstly, there is a transition difficulty, as we have to raise awareness of what Liberal Arts is and is not, not only for students, but also for school teachers and employers. This is further complicated by the differences between the American model and that which we find here. However, this also feeds into a more underlying challenge, namely of how to ensure that students are not ‘lost’ in their university, wandering alone from module to module. This requires clear support and guidance mechanisms from teaching staff and personal tutors, as well as an overall awareness of the importance of curriculum design. Such a challenge is not easily met, but the proliferation of programmes across the UK does offer a number of different approaches that we might usefully share.

Eddie Playfair:

Eddie Playfair has been principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) since 2008 and was previously principal of Regent Sixth Form College in Leicester for 6 years having taught in London schools and colleges since 1983.
NewVIc is a large, successful and comprehensive sixth form college in East London which sends more ‘disadvantaged’ students to university than any other school or college in the country. Overall, 767 NewVIc students progressed to HE in 2013 from both A level and vocational programmes. The college has a 99% progression rate for A level applicants and has also increased the number of students progressing to Russell group universities from 42 in 2012 to 60 in 2013.

Thoughts on the Liberal Arts:

Post-16 students in England specialise early and the programmes they follow are often too narrow. I am interested in developing ways of broadening the 16-18 curriculum which give all students some common understanding of human history and culture and prepare them for active global citizenship. I believe we need a broader and inclusive post-16 baccalaureate for all young people which values both practical and ‘academic’ learning, but even without this I think there are imaginative ways we can develop a post-16 liberal arts curriculum for all without needing new qualifications or requiring additional spending. At NewVIc, we run a Liberal Arts lecture programme curated by universities and we are planning to develop service learning and student research in ways which will broaden and deepen our students’ experience. There are opportunities to do so much more if schools, colleges and universities can work together and make good use of shared resources.

Tricia Kelleher:

Tricia Kelleher joined the Stephen Perse Foundation in 2001 when it was an all-girls, academic powerhouse. Much has changed, including the introduction of two co-educational pre-preps and the merger with a nearby, non-selective preparatory school. Whilst the academic pride remains, and the results are higher than ever, Tricia has moved the emphasis of education towards inter-disciplinary learning with a concern for development of skills or aptitudes which are the building blocks to prepare young people for a rapidly changing, globally connected future of many unknowns. Introduction of IB, co-education (within a diamond formation structure) and leadership in the digital world are all key to Tricia’s, and the School’s, vision for education.

Carl Gombrich:
Programme Director
Arts and Sciences (BASc)

Gombrich thinks that:

‘Liberal Arts: Where’s the Science?’

‘I will argue that Liberal Arts must not be seen merely as an attempt to broaden the humanities and to re-establish somehow the relevance of any threatened disciplines that come under this contemporary faculty banner. Rather, a liberal arts education can and should attempt two things: 1 To offer the possibility of breadth in higher education – some kind of approximation to the ‘universal education’ of old; 2 To foster and promote interdisciplinarity across all disciplines but especially across the sciences/non-sciences divide where, perhaps, the challenges but also the rewards are greatest.’

Tom Sherrington:

Tom Sherrington has been working as a teacher and school leader for over 25 years. From September he will be taking up the post of Headteacher at Highbury Grove School in Islington. He is a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable and has a large following for his blog He has also just written his first book aimed at new science teachers: Teach Now! The Joy of Teaching Science.

Marc Sidwell:

Marc Sidwell is the co-author with Anthony O’Hear of The School of Freedom: A Liberal Education Reader from Plato to the Present Day and City A.M.’s managing editor, where he also writes a wide-ranging weekly column, The Long View, on topics including the benefits of a liberal education to success in today’s workplace. His collected columns are available as Amazon ebooks. A dedicated generalist, Marc is a graduate of University College, Oxford and Warwick University, where he respectively studied Psychology and Philosophy and the reconstruction of Elizabethan amphitheatres. When not writing, editing or reading he likes to climb, go for long walks to good pubs and ski cross-country.

Marc will talk about:

The New Humanism
— A look at the trailblazers reinventing and rediscovering liberal education for the twenty-first century and how a new synthesis of arts and sciences may be emerging as a result.

Hywel Jones:

Hywel Jones – Headteacher, West London Free School

All pupils should have access to an education that connects them to
the best that has been thought and written in mathematics, the
sciences, history, literature and the arts. As Headteacher of West
London Free School that provides a liberal arts education to a
comprehensive intake, I want all pupils to engage with the study of
the serious side of human life which focuses on the fragile and
temporal nature of humanity. Education should provide students with an
insight into our human heritage, and should not be overly concerned
with the surface level of vocational and technological change. A
liberal arts education provides students with the knowledge to reflect
on our human heritage. Primarily because it stresses the importance of
each subject as a separate discipline. Each separate discipline
contains its own conventions, terminology and knowledge base to
understand further the world around us. Furthermore, all schools
should play a central role in emphasising that knowledge should be
pursued in and for itself and not as a means to some changing
vocational end. During my spare time I am an avid reader of twentieth
century international history, spy novels and political theory. I was
educated at a state comprehensive school in Wales, the London School
of Economics & Political Science and Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Stuart Lock

Deputy Headteacher at Rushcroft Foundation School in Chingford. I blog at and tweet about education and other things under the twitter handle @StuartLock

On the liberal arts Stuart feels:
At my school, I despair that when asked about why they’re in school, many students refer to getting a good job.
Similarly, colleagues presented with challenging students or students not motivated in class sometimes ask, rhetorically but not without damage: what do you think you’re going to do for a living when you leave school?

The idea of education for the sake of education often appears lost – certainly in the school in which I teach. The idea that education allows one to be free is one that is unheard of from almost anyone I know working in formal state education. Humankind has, I contend, lost the tradition that suggests to be inducted into what Michael Oakeshott called the conversation of mankind is the purpose of education.

While not deifying the past, those who believe in education for the liberal arts have a challenge to recapture an element of tradition in education – one that contrasts with narratives that include 21st century skills or preparation for jobs that don’t yet exist.

There is not a consensus as to how and what to teach, yet insights from cognitive science have provided us with a clearer view of what works best in the classroom. This is becoming increasingly problematic for teaching and learning practice. Some prevalent teaching techniques combined with a development of a ‘skills-based’ curriculum, underpinned by progressive ideals, have signalled the demise of the liberal arts in the curriculum. Hence fewer pupils have access to the richest works of literature, chronology in history, and the rigour of grammar and language. A revolution is needed in classrooms so that all pupils- in particular, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds- come to see that education possesses beauty and virtue in its own right, that it is not simply a means to an end, and most importantly, that it is a key facilitator of freedom and liberty of thought.

Meanwhile, some of the sensible writings of the liberal philosophers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring the liberal arts – those of RS Peters, Paul Hirst, Robert Dearden and indeed Oakeshott – remain unheard of by many. The shoulders of these giants are barely visible to stand on as the tide rises.

My view is that the current issues faced by the liberal arts are that an education that sets one free remains wholly absent from the political agenda and they are hence largely excluded by those who comment on education. We need to put them back on the table.

Dr. Mike Dobson:


Dr. Mike Dobson’s experience of studying more than one subject at a UK university started as an undergraduate when he studied history and archaeology at the University of Exeter. His postgraduate research continued this interdisciplinary vein, as he combined classical literary studies and archaeology to look at the Roman army. A growing interest in IT in the humanities during the 1980s led him to teach interdisciplinary IT-based modules on graphical communication and publishing, at the University of Exeter. This resulted in him directing a humanities-based IT academic unit for many years. Since 2007 he has been director of Exeter’s ‘unusual’ Flexible Combined Honours degree, looking after over 700 students and increasing annually. His research interests in the Roman army continue, and he was made a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 2013 in recognition of this work.

Some thoughts for the Liberal Arts conference

Single Honours and if you must, Combined Honours – How very British! But now Liberal Arts as well. Or, no subject combinations please, we’re British.

Why is it that the rest of the world think that studying more than one subject is the norm? Why do they formulate their universities to provide an ‘education’ for their students? Why do they see their universities as simply continuing the practice in their schools, of ‘educating’ the pupils until they are 18, through a wide curriculum, with subjects in abundance for each pupil.

Nearer to home, the Scots provide degrees of breadth, embracing several subjects, allowing students to move freely between subjects. This education naturally follows the breadth of the school provision of post-16 Scottish Highers. They must have got it right, as the American university system was established long ago by Scottish academics. The result is the Ivy League, or should it really be the Thistle League? No wonder the Scots want independence from the rest of the UK.

But dear old England. No watering down of degrees here please. Single subject is best. Good depth and academic rigour. Lots of academic insight into the subject. Make the students experts. That’s the thing. Train them at school for this with just three subjects post-16, four if you go to the right school. But keep it quiet that the statesmen (heaven forbid states-women) who built the Empire studied Greats at Oxford; this was not just the Classics, both language and literature, with Philosophy, but originally included Maths and Natural Sciences (sounds very much like the emerging UK-version of Liberal Arts to me). Or that a large majority of the current Cabinet studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Isn’t that combined honours you say? Oh no, it’s PPE – a single subject really.

But the Enlightenment is dawning. A-Levels are facing competition from the IB. Now there is hope for a proper education, continental-style. Some private schools have dropped A-Levels altogether as they can see the folly of subject silo-teaching, aka A-Levels. So why do so many UK universities still fight shy of the IB? Not so long ago, some universities did not even recognise it as an appropriate qualification for university entrance. Even now, some universities ask for higher IB grades than an A-Level pupil can achieve. Yet IB students perform excellently at universities, some even say better than A-Level entrants. They have skills that A-Level students frequently lack – thinking across boundaries, excellent critical thought, independent learning, motivation, the desire to learn. Several of my IB students say they found the first year at university did not stretch them as it so overlapped with their IB. I have never heard an A-Level student say that.

Why the fear of the study of multiple subjects in the UK?

Over 60% of UK employers say they do not mind what degree a student studies. Most graduates do not go on to jobs that are in their degree area (vocational degrees such as medicine, law, engineering etc being exceptions). So why the British stronghold of ‘single subject is best’ and anything less (i.e. any form of combined studies) waters down things. We do not need to turn out subject experts; employers do not want them.

Employers say what they really want is transferrable skills (the soft skills). Increasingly employers are asking for combined honours students, simply as they are likely to have twice as many (or more) transferrable skills.

Students are increasingly seeking to study what they ‘want’ to study, not what they feel (or are told by schools or parents) they ‘ought’ to study. This may account for why my own Flexible Combined Honours degree at Exeter, which is largely student-driven (essentially they create the degree programme they want to study), grows by almost 100 students a year. I started in 2007 with 120 students – this year I have 714. It also attracts the brightest students coming to Exeter – it has the highest entry tariff of any degree at the University. Similar patterns of growth and quality have been seen at other UK universities offering this type of degree.

So let’s encourage multi-disciplinary studies at UK universities. The rest of the world cannot have got it wrong!

Combined Honours, Joint Honours, Dual Honours, Liberal Arts. The list is growing. There is also the issue of are they multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary; arguably some are one and some are the other. But the essence is the same – students should be encouraged to embrace more than one way of thinking about things. They will not live in a linear society or be likely to follow a single career path. They are going into a world of increasing uncertainty and change. Many of the types of job they will be applying for simply do not exist at the moment. They need a university education that will train them to think laterally and freely, with every type of ‘inter-‘ and ‘multi-‘ they can embrace. That way their future may not just be orange, but many colours.

Martin Robinson:

As this is a conference jointly organised by Aaron Rosen and myself I don’t want to say too much here apart from here is a link to me talking about a humane education.


5 thoughts on “Liberal Arts Conference. October 14th 2014

  1. Answer: A narrow ‘polite’ conception of Arts Culture run by a media/arts/state axis (The Totalitarian Media Culture)
    This determines the whole culture and the validity or otherwise of the creative acts carried out in it’s name.
    This is a dangerous kind of culture, it is a suppression of unmediated culture by self interested, self perpetuating bureaucratic organisations.

    Unmediated culture is suppressed by it’s exclusion from funding and organisational support because of it’s inability to engage in the fossilised ‘language’ and mindset of those organisations.


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