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Higher education and the liberal arts November 25, 2010

Posted by Alex, Managing Director in International education.
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Here we profile Dr Ian Newbould, President of Richmond, the American International University in London, who believes that the liberal arts prepares students to adapt to the ever changing world in which they find themselves.

Students do not just attend a university to acquire a degree. Rather they develop a set of skills that enable them to meet the complex challenges that they will face when they leave the security of the classroom.

Dr Newbould has a fascinating perspective of the different educational systems of Canada, the United States and now Britain, where he has been president of three different universities. The similarities among the student bodies repeatedly impresses him, as the students, no matter what their background, are all pursuing degrees to place them on the first rung of the corporate ladder. One constant in his career has been his professional involvement, first as a historian teaching in Holland and Canada, and then as a university administrator, in smaller learning environments that emphasized the liberal arts model.

His strong belief is that students flourish in smaller universities that are primarily undergraduate in nature. In this environment, the university is able to nurture each individual student and help him or her develop, from an academic, social and cultural perspective. Student support systems have a real meaning when groups of hundreds, rather than thousands, of students come under the university’s guidance.

From the outset, highly qualified senior faculty members teach in classes that rarely involve more than two-dozen students. In large universities, many undergraduate students are taught by graduate students, and never see a full-time professor until their third or fourth year. When faculty members make themselves available outside of class times, as has been his experience, they are able to make a real difference for students who seek them out for academic guidance.

A liberal arts undergraduate program is an ideal academic structure for students. While there are many descriptions of the meaning of liberal arts, the essential feature is the ability to study a wide range of academic subjects in the first and second years before specializing in one or two academic disciplines. There are a number of advantages in this approach. Firstly, most students do not know what it is that they plan to do in life. The ability to study a wider range of subjects opens their minds to areas of study that they might never have discovered. The same holds true for students who have a good idea of what they plan to do.

Increasingly, one reads of British students who study at an American university and marvel at the ability to taste a wide spectrum of subject areas, something that is not possible in British universities, where students have been forced to make career and academic decisions at the age of 15.

A student who is intent on studying international finance learns a great deal by being able to study some history, photography or foreign languages along with their finance courses. As the president of a large Canadian insurance company said, this is the one time in a person’s life when they can learn about civilizations and societies, about history and ideas, about religions and philosophy. It broadens the mind; it widens the ability to think and to analyze. It makes a person fit for life, no matter what profession the graduate chooses. Business leaders are virtually unanimous in looking for graduates who can think clearly, understand wider notions of thought, analyze issues, and demonstrate the ability to master large amounts of information. A liberal arts education provides an opportunity to so develop.

One of the great strengths of Richmond, the American International University in London, is the international character of its student body. With students from over 140 countries, there is another dimension to the learning and teaching experience. Students learn to appreciate other cultures in a way that studying at a university with a single national culture cannot provide. A class in political science or international relations might have as many nationalities as it has students. Differing perspectives in discussion become the norm rather than the exception. They learn to share and respect others opinions and coexist in the same classroom.

Moreover, the decision to leave the comfort of one’s culture, to break away from the cocoon of home and friends, has profound importance for that student’s future. Students at Richmond stand out from the norm because of their adventurous desire to experience a wider world.

Graduate schools and employers are looking for exactly that trait to separate the wheat from the chaff. It is this spirit that attracted Dr Newbould to Richmond. All of the students have this quality, and students who have experienced international lives feel at home in this environment.

Students are young people with goals, dreams, hopes and insecurities. They are developing as young adults. A small, liberal arts, university is the ideal setting for that maturation, both academically and personally. Put together with an international environment such as exists at Richmond, or Paris, or Rome or Tokyo, and the ingredients of a productive future are there. Students who can achieve their goals in this caring environment are most assuredly ‘fit for life’.

This editorial was first published in The John Catt Guide to International Schools 2010/11.

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