Classically Inclined

June 8, 2011

The New College of the Humanities and the Small Liberal Arts College model

Filed under: Meta,Teaching — lizgloyn @ 1:32 pm
Tags: ,

You may have noticed a bit of a flurry over A.C. Grayling’s plans to launch a private university, the New College of the Humanities (previously known to Companies House as Grayling Hall after two of the founders). From the college’s website, it plans to offer degrees in Law, Economics, History, English Literature and Philosophy (although as of yet it doesn’t have its own degree-granting powers, and plans to register students for degrees through the University of London International Programmes). However, the difference is that students will take “three core subjects together with a Professional Skills course“. Which, to me, looks very much like the sort of general core curriculum required by American universities, and specifically those which would be considered Small Liberal Arts Colleges, or SLACs. Indeed, A.C. Grayling has said that the NCH is trying to “make use of an American-style model“.

(Let us leave aside for the moment my obvious outrage that Classics is not included as a central course. Philosophy includes a module of Plato and the Pre-Socratics, and the foundation English Literature course requires students to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone; Virgil’s Aeneid; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and Plato’s Symposium and Republic. It’s not a brilliant introduction to the classical world, but it’s certainly the equivalent of what a graduate of an American SLAC might experience during their studies. Let’s also leave aside the minor issue that at least some of the syllabi on the NCH website seem to have been pilfered from other universities…)

What I wanted to think about for a moment, apart from all the other issues (some of which Mary Beard has already outlined), is this question of transferring a SLAC model to the UK. Of course, NCH isn’t exactly like a SLAC. Most SLACs have excellent science programs as well as humanities programs, plus they pride themselves on the quality of their teaching – not just on their ‘star power’ lecturers. It is perfectly normal for SLACs not to have students at the Masters and PhD level, something that NCH has come under fire for, but this doesn’t stop their academic staff being involved in the wider research culture of their fields. The production of Masters and PhD students tends to fall to universities in the R1 (short for Research 1) category, whose focus is on research rather than teaching; research students therefore fit better into the ‘mission’ of R1s than they do into that of SLACs. The UK, of course, doesn’t have anything like such a clearly defined set of roles for its institutions, and you might make the case that NCH is potentially contributing a useful new model to the UK by pointing out that institutions can, in fact, focus purely on undergrad teaching.

(This point is, alas, underminded by the fact that SLACs may emphasises teaching over research, but still expect their faculty to be doing research – NCH doesn’t seem to be proposing anything like a research culture among its staff. James Ladyman has written about this in the New Statesman far better than I can.) 

But stepping back from the NCH for a moment, there is a serious point here. Can the SLAC model actually be transferred to the UK? Is this a feasible project to begin with, never mind the failings with the NCH’s specific instantiation of that project?

The problem I think is going to arise from importing this system that I haven’t seen mentioned yet is that there is a fundamental difference between US and UK students. UK students have come up through a National Curriculum. US students haven’t.

Now, the National Curriculum may be a much maligned beast, but bear with me here. Students in America have no standardisation whatsoever in their pre-university education. There are high school diplomas, but what one has to do in order to get one varies from school to school, never mind from state to state. There are hypothetically standards for testing which the individual states create for themselves, as part of No Child Left Behind, but in practice these are rather rickety, and the rubrics written to help grade them (from what I’ve seen) tend to be pretty vague. Also, students often go to university outside the state where they completed their secondary education, and there’s no standardisation between the various states’ requirements. Some students may have taken the Advanced Placement exams, but these are far from compulsory. So when students get to university in the US, you have a real grab-bag of knowledge, of background, of experience – basically, there is no shared starting point in the classroom.  One of the first challenges of a university instructor in any US institution is working out how much students actually know already.

In the UK, when a student enters university, instructors can make a rough guess at what students already know. They’ve passed certain exams, got certain grades, that imply they have at least met certain concepts and done reasonably well with them. Students will also have had to get certain grades in certain courses to enter, so if a student must have had an A in A-level Latin to get onto a course, an instructor can assume a fairly good grasp of topics covered by an A-level Latin syllabus. This makes a huge difference to how one prepares to teach a subject – it’s the difference between introduction and review.

One problem that this difference poses is how one would successfully transfer the American notion of a general education or ‘core’ requirement, where students are required to take a certain number of courses in a wide range of fields in order to graduate. Let me illustrate this by an anecdote from my own experience, as a product from the UK system in a US classroom. I was teaching a Latin class and we were translating the famous passage from the Aeneid where Laocoon throws his spear into the wooden horse and it makes a thrumming sound. My class looked a bit confused, so I explained that when the spear hit the wood, the kinetic energy got changed into sound energy and thus the noise was created. Good old GCSE physics showing its value there. However, I happened to have a professor of physics at the university sitting in on that class (he wanted to learn Latin, I was teaching Latin, and lo, I got an extra student who just happened to be chair of the physics department), and he said afterwards that he’d been very impressed that I had known about the principle of transferring energy, because most of his physics majors would not have known it until he taught it to them.

Having a baseline of A-levels, and even GCSEs, means that the UK educational system produces students with a much higher baseline of knowledge when they enter higher education. That provides a problem for a SLAC-style institution in the UK. If you want to get students studying three core subjects at degree level, you want to get them studying them at a level that’s meaningful – which means getting them up to above A-level standard. Doing just one subject meaningfully above A-level standard is pretty gruelling as it is. Pitching where to target your teaching for students who may already have done A-levels in certain subjects (not to mention GCSEs) is going to be a challenge. First, you don’t want students to repeat learning they’ve already done at the A-level stage (at least not for any significant portion of time). Second, you don’t want to pitch material too high for students who may have only reached GCSE standard in a subject. Third, you don’t want to overwhelm students by asking for too many different requirements in different subjects at once. A SLAC doesn’t have a unified baseline to start from, so can pitch its general requirements to give its students a broad introduction to a wide range of fields – but when we have the high baseline of the National Curriculum to start with, we automatically go upwards from there, which means more difficult material, and more of it.

My central point in all of this is that if any institution is going to try to import the SLAC model into the UK, it is going to have to think very hard about how it does that in an educational world that exists on top of the National Curriculum instead of the patchwork of the US system. It changes the playing field quite significantly in terms of pedagogy and how an institution constructs itself – in fact, I can see the possibility of arguing that it is because of the National Curriculum that all UK universities view themselves as research institutions, not just teaching institutions (although I’m not sure how convinced I’d be of that argument as there are plenty of other historical factors in play). I know that the questions of access and fitting into the wider UK research culture are important and should be considered. But in order for such an institution to be successful, it will have to work out how to successfully incorporate this crucially different element of educational culture into its pedagogy and curriculum.



  1. Is the NCH really trying to import the SLAC model to the UK? Their teaching model looks a lot more like to me what the stereotype of places like Harvard is sometimes supposed to be: superstar lecturers are wheeled in and out to do their occasional turn at the rostrum, while the day-to-day teaching is done by academic proletarians (TAs, TFs, adjuncts, fixed-term staff, whoever).

    If the SLAC was really the model, after all, we’d have heard a lot more in the last few days about the people who will actually be doing the work of teaching the students (and the kinds of contracts they’ll be on) and comparatively less about the stupid “professoriate” of telly dons and other assorted intellectual slebs that are there as the headline acts.

    Comment by Chris Brooke — June 9, 2011 @ 9:18 am | Reply

    • I would say that the SLAC model is a lot closer to what the NCH is envisoning, particularly the small intake and the select teaching staff. I agree that one of the ways that it’s not meeting up to the model is the superstar nature of the staff, but I never said they were emulating their model perfectly! (Incidentally, NCH won’t be able to have TAs and TFs, because they won’t have any graduate students from which to recruit them.)

      I don’t know if you’ve seen Suzannah Lipscomb’s defence of her choice to join NCH in the Guardian today, but she certainly seems to think she’ll be doing the kind of teaching which would make a SLAC proud.

      Comment by lizgloyn — June 9, 2011 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  2. I agree that this is a serious issue, Liz, but there may be ways to address it, some more affordable than others. If I understand you correctly, the problem is something like this.

    1. Each subject gets significantly harder as one steps up from GCSE to A level, and from A level to the next level up (call it freshman level).

    2. If students have done all sorts of bits and pieces to all sorts of standards, one can sensibly offer minors that correspond to A level. People should not, of course, pick minors at that level which correspond to their own A level subjects. (I am not at all sure whether I have got this bit of the argument right. I am trying to get clear about why the problem you pose for England is not a problem in the USA. And although I talk about minors, I mean the argument to apply even if the whole course is a big bunch of minors, with no major subject.)

    3. But if everyone has done GCSEs in all the main subjects, and A levels in all the things that really interest them, one has to offer minors at freshman level. That may be fine for some, but not for all, because of the sharp increase in difficulty.

    4. It would be tricky to offer two versions of each minor. “Do you want to do the proper physics minor (freshman level), or the baby physics minor (sub-A-level)?”. Either both versions make the same contribution to a degree, which looks too soft, or a baby minor only counts for half as much as a proper minor, which then makes the timetables of students doing baby minors too crowded. Moreover, the existence of baby minors would mean that students taking them could not sit in on selected lectures for the majors. The professors would have to prepare and give completely different sets of lectures, and prepare different assignments, making their timetables too crowded.

    That’s a bit long-winded, but I just wanted to unpack the problem. Please let me know if I have misunderstood. But subject to that, what about some solutions?

    An expensive solution would be to hire lots more staff, and to do a lot of teaching through supervisions that can be tailored to the individual students’ levels.

    An affordable solution would be to offer minors in subjects that were close in nature to the subjects in which students had A levels and were therefore pursuing at degree level anyway, and that in fact bordered on being modules within those degree-level subjects. Thus someone majoring in history might take a freshman-level minor in history of art, and would probably not find it either beyond them or insulting. Some economists could do freshman-level minors in mathematics, others in history. And so on.

    The disadvantage of the affordable solution is that if you only study your main subject and a few neighbouring subjects, you do not get a broad liberal education. But does this draw our attention to what may be the real problem? It may be that many people who are perfectly capable of studying some subjects at degree level, still do not have the intellectual horsepower to get their heads round a wide range of subjects at that level? I say this with some hesitation. It may just be bad teaching that makes some people have real difficulty with mathematical subjects, or which means that they have not developed the well-regulated imagination that is needed to paint a convincing picture of the past without going beyond our limited evidence. But it may be the limitations of human beings.

    Comment by Richard Baron — June 9, 2011 @ 9:55 am | Reply

  3. If NCH imports the concept of Major and Minor subjects, that would be an interesting addition to higher education in the UK. However, there is no indication that they will do so.

    Cynics (who, me?) believe that Grayling Hall’s major contribution will be decanting rich dullards out of merit-based education.

    Comment by Nile — June 9, 2011 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

    • It would only be an addition south of the Tweed. I have not checked the current position at all of the Scottish universities, but the four ancient ones do seem to keep up the tradition of the four-year MA first degree, within which one typically studies a range of subjects. Glasgow even has courses with the magic phrase “Liberal arts” in their titles. Having said that, courses with humanities majors seem to be more likely than courses with science majors to include minors.

      Scottish highers are different from English A levels: one studies more subjects at a lower level. So the universities start in a different place.

      Comment by Richard Baron — June 10, 2011 @ 6:29 am | Reply

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