The re-emergence of liberal arts and science education since the 1990s in European countries was seen as an innovation in higher education. The fact that this was in a way also a return to the classical approach of the curriculum known from the medieval European university, was over stemmed by the idea that this US model of undergraduate education could well fit an increasingly utilitarian context as driven by notions of knowledge economy and global competitiveness.
It was seen as to contribute to the concurrent aims and expectations of the time: internationalization and interdisciplinarity of the curriculum, the development of 21st century skills, more selectivity (excellence) and differentiation at system level.
But beyond these innovative and utilitarian features, how was the liberal aspect actually considered and perceived? What about the inherently related values of personal freedom and development, in relation to both curriculum as an individual and intellectual journey and community as a social and civic process? What about the local, national and global dimensions of the expected responsible citizenship as an outcome?
The question whether it can actually be taken for granted that this implies democratic citizenship and whether a liberal education can exist in an illiberal context at all (Van der Wende & Kirby, 2016) deserves further reflection in the context of recent and seemingly ongoing developments in (and around) Europe.
Liberal education became a target of illiberal regimes; the CEU was banned from Hungary and Smolny (St. Petersburg) was deemed by Russia “an undesirable organization” and closed. These trends seem to be part of illiberal reactions to higher education, associated with growing populism and (neo)nationalism. Yet illiberal trends may also come from within, associated with wokeness and cancel culture, and paradoxically perhaps, some liberal arts and science colleges in Europe seem to be hotspots of such trends.