Streamlining research on European liberal education

What am I working on right now?

  1. A study of the first leaders in contemporary European liberal education. Eight first leaders of surviving institutions, eight countries, eight long interviews conducted 2016-17, transcribed and currently coded and reflected upon. Preliminary results to be presented at ECER 2017 in Copenhagen and CHER 2017 in Jyvaskyla (both in late August). This would ultimately form the core of my dissertation to be defended in 2018.
  2. A conceptual analysis of research on contemporary liberal education in Europe. As a warm-up, I wrote an article pointing towards possible pathways of using discourse analysis to unbundle what people might mean when they speak of liberal education in contemporary Europe (Kontowski, D., 2017. Notes on liberal (arts) education discourse. Kultura – Społeczeństwo – Edukacja, 1(9) to be published shortly. But the proper piece is supposed to be published in 2018 (Kontowski, D., 2018. The concept of liberal education in Europe; two traditions and a way forward. In J. Huisman & M. Tight, eds. Theory and Method in Higher Education Research. Emerald Group Publishing Limited). The core argument as I see it now goes like this: historical-theoretical studies of liberal education dissect the diversity of the movement, but do not speak much of contemporary Europe; empirical-institutional studies focusing on liberal education in Europe operate on the unity/movement assumption, speaking of liberal education as a common trend as evidenced by using a common vocabulary; unless we find a way of merging insights of those two traditions, our understanding of contemporary European liberal education would remain superficial and uncritical; if we find a way of cross-pollinating their insights, we could better assess pluralism, common features, individual motivation and the system function of the phenomenon.
  3. A study of the first attempt to bring people interested in Europe together, “Artes Liberales” Association (1996-2001) that aimed at promotion of liberal education in Central and Eastern Europe and brought scholars and administrators from those countries into a dialogue with a number of US leaders in liberal education. The Association worked from the Educational Leadership Programme of Endeavour Foundation, and influenced a lot of thinking back then, but was unable to generate enough cooperation in the region and ultimately dissolved. The Association’s website has been taken down long ago, and apart from few bits of information scattered in newspapers and journals, not much is publicly available. But I was able to get access to the Association archives and interview people that played a role 20 years ago, therefore I am positive I will be able to learn from their experience – both conceptual differences in US/CEE understandings of liberal education, and bread and butter pains of international cooperation in the pre-Internet academia.
  4. Institutional diversity of liberal education programs and colleges in Europe. Hoping to bring a little order into a complex picture of European liberal education as presented by Godwin (2013) and van der Wende (2011), I have started working with Tim Hoff (a grad student at University of Hamburg) on the new database that is going to be publicly available, reliable and updated. First outcome is going to be published as a chapter in late 2017/early 2018 (Kontowski, D., 2017. Emerging alternative designs for higher education: Liberal arts initiatives in Europe. In S. Wright & R. W. B. Lund, eds. University Futures. Critical perspectives, alternative designs. Oxford: Berghahn Books), where I discuss in more details university colleges, liberal arts programs, liberal education in authoritarian countries and double-edged approach to liberal education in Winchester. In the chapter, I am interested to what extent this particular forms can bring much needed democratic revival to public universities. A version of this paper would be presented at Society for Values in Higher Education meeting in Boston, July 2017, and during EAIR conference in Porto in September 2017. The work on the database continues, with Tim presenting during our panel in Aarhus in November 2017 (conference The purpose of the future university).
  5. Student perspectives on their European liberal education. Together with David Michael Kretz and Jakob Dirksen we have edited a collection of 17 short narratives in which students discuss their experience of liberal education in Europe. Titled after the 1st Liberal Arts Student Conference in Luneburg in May 2016 (Dirksen, J.T.V., Kontowski, D. & Kretz, D. eds., 2017. What Is Liberal Education and What Could It Be? European Students On Their Liberal Arts Education), the collection is now looking for the best way to be published, which should generally happen over the summer.
  6. Small-scale curricular review of what is considered common core in liberal education programs and institutions in Europe. I am specifically interested in how many of them offer anything similar to Great Books or Core Texts as obligatory student experience. And if they don’t, what is considered obligatory instead? While this is certainly a topic for a detailed study, right now I want to scan through curricula of the programs in our database, count “classical” or “literary-heavy” approaches, and see whether some other elements (methodology? foreign language? big challenges?) aren’t by any chance more popular.
  7. Last but not least, the emerging interest of liberal arts vs. artes neoliberales. for quite some time I was baffled how the language of liberal education can be used for a competition-driven global knowledge economy agenda. If the way to defend and promote liberal education is through the usefulness – of critical thinking, adaptability, lifelong learning, problem solving, cultural awareness, effective communication etc. – then this marks for me a departure from at least the way liberal education was spoken about, if not essentially conceived. The pick and choose in the curriculum, creeping professionalism, internships and issues/innovation speak can very well attract students to liberal education programs for some new kind of reasons. As it has already been suggested in the literature that there was (in the 1990s, and still is) a demand for liberal education due to economic, political and social changes, I would like to investigate, hopefully through ethnography, how are institutions balancing the intrinsic ideal with instrumental reality of policy, parents and the job market. These negotiations do not have to follow any particular model, as we should remember how resilient academics can be in window-dressing the freedom based programs into vestiges of usefulness. While I will present the model for the study during the panel in Aarhus mentioned above in November, I would not expect the full study to be launched before 2018.

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