Discussion on the Liberal Arts College Model

On April 20th during the 8th Assembly of Young Political Scientists in Perm, Center for Comparative History and Politics Studies organised a discussion on the liberal arts college model in Russia and beyond. The discussion was an initiative of the Center's research fellow Andrey Semenov who visited Bard College of New York State last summer, and Konstantin Kokarev from Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). 

Recalling his Bard experience and with the help of Bard faculty (notably James Ketterer and Jonathan Becker) Andrey Semenov described the major features of liberal arts college model including student-centered education, writing-intensive courses and focus on critical thinking. He addressed the audience with the following questions: Can this model be applied to regional universities in Russia? Do students of social sciences in Russia need themselves critical thinking and other skills provided by the liberal arts model? And what are the major constraints for implementing this model?

As RANEPA develops the liberal arts college for bachelor students within the Academy Konstantin Kokarev tackled this set of questions and shared his experience in teaching and curriculum development. The audience engaged the discussion raising concerns about prospects of wide implementation of liberal arts college as a model for Russian higher education. First, the regulations regarding higher education institutions are not suitable with federal standards that do no provide much space for being flexible. The faculty staff itself can oppose the model preferring a more traditional way of conducting lectures and seminars. Students might be not interested in the model in focus since the traditional one allows them to invest less time and efforts for the same price of a university diploma. Also, students doubted the competitive advantages of the liberal arts model because employers in Russia are not familiar with it and usually don't care much about critical skills as well as parents and society in general.

On the other hand, participants of the discussion noticed that a whole variety of teaching practices associated with the liberal arts are already in place: project- and research-oriented tasks, writing-intensive subjects, student self-evaluation etc. Hence, the "invisible colleges" of interested faculty members, administrators and students have always been present, and student-centered approach is gaining more attention from administrative and teaching communities. There are students who are eager to read and write a lot and to develop critical thinking, as well as teachers employing interactive techniques, thus there is a prospect for developing the liberal college model from within. After all, having competing models is a great incentive for improving the current state of affairs in the Russian higher education.