The conclusion to the book argues that attention must be paid to a plurality of values that are in operation in higher education as a way to understand both how official educational narratives proceed (such as those on institutions’ promotional websites), and how people seek to disentangle that plurality when asked to explain their beliefs and actions in interviews. It goes on to think through the implications of this plurality in the specific context of meritocracy, massification and non-vocational education discussed throughout the book, as well as more explicitly in Chapter 6. Analysing the precise mechanisms by which credential inflation has proceeded since the early 20th century, the book argues finally that the problem of non-vocational education is not that it masks class inequality under a veil of educational legitimacy (as formulated in much critical sociology), but rather that it casually entangles plural values together in ways that allow multiple goods (not only credentials, but also intellectual kudos and social esteem) to stick to privileged individuals. The ways in which some students and academics seek to disentangle these values offers an invaluable starting point for making the liberal arts less elitist.
This chapter explores one of the only features that characterises all liberal arts initiatives in England: interdisciplinarity. Using Rob Moore’s distinction between routine interdisciplinarity and hyper-interdisciplinarity, it relates how institutions’ promotional websites reject disciplines and the complex ways that this rejection is negotiated by students and academics. They seek to disentangle celebratory liberal arts advocacy by drawing attention to how interdisciplinarity is practised on the ground in higher education. First, academics note the educational structures that are required to sustain (or not) interdisciplinary innovations, where broader questions of specialisation, progression and the modularisation of the curriculum must be considered. Second, students, in particular, can be critical of very grand assertions about the capacity of applied, problem-based learning to solve all manner of complex, ‘wicked’ problems.
This chapter brings together a series of apparently disparate concerns that are often raised about higher education today, as well as this cohort of students, and to which liberal arts degrees are often presented as the answer. First, these have to do with competences: what are the specific attributes that general higher education should instil to prepare students not only for work, but for life? Second, given the fees that students in England pay, to what extent should institutions provide distinct degrees that reflect students’ individualities (‘giving students what they want’)? Finally, given that more and more young people are attending university in order to study more and more general degrees, how can individuals continue to stand out on the job market? It is argued that these seemingly very different concerns in fact all relate to a larger process whereby educational outcomes are increasingly homogenised, while the routes to those outcomes are increasingly differentiated. It is also further argued that in different ways, students try to disentangle these knots by seeking to develop disciplinary expertise and specialist skills, and by critiquing ideas of educational individualism and consumerism.
This chapter turns to the question of how higher education students today are conceptualised on liberal arts degrees’ promotional websites and by some senior academics. Two interconnected types of ideal liberal arts student are presented here: the good citizen concerned with social justice; and the well-travelled cosmopolitan. While students in interviews in very gentle ways questioned any inherent link between social justice and the liberal arts, some more forcefully sought to disentangle the conflation of geographical mobility with open-mindedness. For first-generation students in particular, this implicit link made by academics and on websites did a disservice to their more complex relationships to home. The chapter turns finally to consumerism, which was portrayed by some senior academics as central to students’ motivations, especially in relation to the current tuition fee regime. This section, in tandem with the interpretations of precarious and teaching-focused staff, seeks to untangle some of the complexity of what students are saying when they make statements that sound to senior academics like consumerist demands, foregrounding intellectual and emotional concerns as much as market-based ones about consumer rights.
The introduction argues that in order to get to a full picture of what is happening in higher education today, we must pay attention to the different sorts of educational values that are held by students and staff. Against the foundationalist view that one of these values (for instance, marketisation, elitism or the love of learning) must be the true story of what is going on, it introduces ideas from French pragmatic sociology that allow us to stay with that plurality. It argues that students and staff actively seek to disentangle this complexity (as can be seen in research interviews with them) and that a critical sociology of education should begin from these attempts at disentanglement. The introduction also describes the growth of the liberal arts degree in English higher education, explaining why this makes for a very useful case to explore educational complexity.
This chapter explores the relationship between liberal arts degrees and employability. Higher education institutions’ promotional websites contribute to an imaginary future of work that is both extremely concrete (often referred to as the ‘real world’) and, at the same time, unknowable and uncertain. Liberal arts degrees are often presented as particularly good at preparing students for the unknown future graduate labour market via the cultivation of a capacity to learn in general (as opposed to learning any particular content). Students, however, often question real-world narratives, bringing to the fore a different, more traditionally educational reality. They also respond to ideas about the unknown future of work in different ways: while relatively privileged students can face the unknown with mindfulness and even a kind of fatalistic pleasure, those with less of a safety net may seek to control that future through much more directional means.
The liberal arts approach to higher education is a growing trend globally. We are told that the mental dexterity and independent, questioning spirit cultivated by such interdisciplinary degrees are the best preparation for the as-yet unknown executive jobs of tomorrow.
This book explores the significant recent growth of these degrees in England, in order to address an enduring problem for higher education: the relationship between meritocracy and elitism.
Against the view that the former is a myth providing rhetorical cover for the latter, it argues that these are two entangled, but discrete, value systems. Sociology must now pay attention to how students and academics attempt to disentangle them.
This chapter addresses itself to questions of fairness and the liberal arts. Should degrees of this sort be for everybody? Can they be for everybody? And how do these questions help us to see something bigger about the relationship between meritocracy and mass higher education? The chapter argues that there are clear connections between elitism and the liberal arts, for instance, the selection of students based on ‘character’ and the privileging of small class sizes. The entanglement of ability, character and restrictive admissions is clear on institutions’ promotional websites. However, some (especially junior) academics and (especially less privileged) students seek to disentangle them, asking what is a fair test in educational settings. Finally, the chapter looks at how the idea of hard work, in turn, gets entangled with the ideas about ability and character already discussed, and shows that it is this entanglement that is rarely challenged.
In the context of both a globalised higher education system and an accelerated rate of change and innovation for institutions, the liberal arts are sometimes presented as the inevitable ‘direction of travel’. Both innovation and tradition are foregrounded simultaneously, as tradition suggests a safe pair of hands, but innovation avoids accusations of complacency. However, while websites present the tangled values of innovation and prestige as unalloyed goods, academics give more ambivalent descriptions of their motivations for, and experiences of, getting a liberal arts degree on (and sometimes off) the books. Indeed, the decision to close a liberal arts degree on the basis of low student recruitment is presented as just as much the inevitable direction of travel as opening it. The emergence of the liberal arts in England is, it is argued, symptomatic of a radical rudderlessness, where academic leaders no longer feel clear about the purpose of higher education at all.
This chapter concludes the book by reflecting on the context of the overarching structures within which law schools find themselves – the university and the world. This chapter grapples with the impossibility of effectively ‘decolonising’ if this ambition fails to acknowledge how colonial logics have ordered the university sector and the world in which we live. Understanding the limitations of the structures within which we work allows us to be simultaneously intentional and honest about our endeavours. So, we must ask ourselves from within the law school, what outcomes we want our actions in decolonisation to produce, not just in our law schools, but in the university and the world beyond. We must ask what it means to work in a university and live in a world where colonial logics are ceased.