The Paradox of “Practical Liberal Arts”. Lessons from the Wagner College Case for Liberal (Arts) Education in Eastern Europe

  • Daniel Kontowski Department of Education Studies and Liberal Arts, University of Winchester
Keywords: higher education, liberal education, Eastern Europe, civic engagement, liberal arts education, practical liberal arts


The article presents the case study of Wagner College curriculum as an example of paradoxical transformation within contemporary liberal education. The Wagner Plan for Practical Liberal Arts is an important example of overcoming the traditional liberal/vocational distinction in higher education, that has been increasingly challenged by both the economic condition of colleges and wider changes in skills required by the workforce of developed countries. The Wagner College case is not widely acknowledged, yet it may be important for European liberal education institutions. Even though they are mostly public colleges/programs, they operate in a context that has become increasingly similar to that which Wagner College was facing in the early 1990s. Calls for more liberal education go against governmental expectations, study choices and disciplinary traditions of institutions. Wagner buildson the triple assumption that learning is really practical, that higher education can have a practical impact on a local community and that broad interdisciplinary knowledge is even more useful preparation for a future career. Such claims, even though controversial, fit well with the pragmatic consensus in American “pragmatic consensus” that strengthened around liberal arts in last three decades. For Eastern European liberal education, which is a growing field, Wagner provides an interesting example of holistic educational vision that was implemented with relatively limited resources. Apart from administrators, this study may also be of interest to teachers and students who consider the traditional academic setting due to be revamped, even in liberal education programs. Any strategy of development of liberal education in Eastern Europe require scaling up and making it more relevant for major stakeholders (as happened in the Netherlands and is now taking place in the UK), as well as overcoming the neoliberal pressures and academic reluctance. The Wagner case example may spark much needed discussionon how to accomplish it without losing our soul. Eastern Europe, civic engagement, liberal education, liberal arts education, pragmatism, higher education, practical liberal arts.


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How to Cite
KontowskiDaniel. 2016. “The Paradox of ‘Practical Liberal Arts’. Lessons from the Wagner College Case for Liberal (Arts) Education in Eastern Europe”. Voprosy Obrazovaniya / Educational Studies Moscow, no. 3 (September), 80-109.