Global Liberal Arts: an introductory reading list

(c) Jorge Franganillo (Flickr) Ankara, Turkey to illustrate global liberal arts

Your mission:  to compile an introductory reading list for Global Liberal Arts.

Time allowed?  30 minutes


Quick, get a definition.

Liberal arts are… ‘subjects such as literature and history, as distinct from science and technology’… ‘global’ – related to the whole world’  (Oxford

The origins for the term ‘liberal arts’:  the medieval trivium and quadrivium– momentarily waylay you.  Wikipedia informs you that ‘trivium’, meaning ‘the place where three roads meet’ (Latin:  tri + va), comprised grammar, logic and rhetoric.  It was the beginning stage in acquiring the seven liberal arts of classical antiquity and simpler – or ‘trivial’ – in comparison to the quadrivium, which comprised arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

Web search

You turn to the web.  Hasna Haidar (QS TopUniversities blog*) writes that a larger range of subjects is available on a modern liberal art curriculum but it still retains the core aims of medieval universities:

 … to develop well-rounded individuals with general knowledge of a wide range of subjects and with mastery of a range of transferable skills. They will become ‘global citizens’, with the capacity to pursue lifelong learning and become valuable members of their communities.

If the Liberal Arts comprise an interdisciplinary degree covering a broad range of subjects, which introductory work will introduce it best?   You type the key words: ‘introduction’ + ‘liberal arts’ into the search engine. One of the titles it throws up catches your eye:

Scott Hartley, The Fuzzy and the Techie:  Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World (Houghton Mifflin, 2017):

For fuzzy creatives everywhere, this book is both a tonic and a manifesto. As we enter the age of artificial intelligence, we will need more and more of the human kind, nurtured not by the sciences but the humanities. A compelling and convincing read!
– Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO of New America

The Shelf Test

You are standing in SOAS Library.  In your hand is a flyer for the humanities and social sciences.  Its class marks cover:  anthropology, arts, economics, history and geography, language and linguistics, law, literature, management studies, philosophy, politics and international relations, religion and regional collections for Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  You race up and down between the stacks, hoping that a book called ‘Global Liberal Arts: an introduction’ will spring out into your hands.

Climbing to the second floor of the library, you pause by a computer and, bringing up SOAS website, skim read the entry for BA in Global Liberal Arts:

broad but rigorous… explore a range of subjects… arts and humanities… languages and social sciences…understanding of the world…expert knowledge of Asia, Africa and the Middle East… skills …critical thinking, project design… research methods… global and regional tracks … study of a language from one of these regions… the perspective, specialist knowledge, and skills … broad range of professions… adaptability and flexibility… rapidly changing world.

With seconds to spare, you spot that the page also includes a pre-entry reading list.  Too late.  30 minutes are up.  Time to put your search to the final test.

An Academic’s response:  Dr Angus Lockyer’s (pre-entry reading list)

Given the nature of the degree, it is not possible to suggest readings that will introduce the full range of subjects available during your three years. The following are only starting-points, therefore.

  • Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015)
  • Jennifer M. Shepard, The Harvard Sampler: Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century (2011)

For introductions to the world and its history:

  • Robert Marks, The Origins of the Modern World (2015, 2006, 2002)
  • Manfred Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (2013)

And for introductions to the different regions we study at SOAS:

  • April A. Gordon and Donald A. Gordon, Understanding Contemporary Africa (2013 et al.)
  • Roy Richard Grinker and Christopher B. Steiner, Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation (2010 et al.)
  • John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent (2007 et al.)
  • William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East (2009 et al.)
  • Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (2005 et al.)
  • Albert Hourani, et al., The Modern Middle East: A Reader (2004 et al.)
  • Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (2011)
  • Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (2003)
  • John Talbot, India and Pakistan (2000)
  • Craig Lockard, Southeast Asia in World History (2009)
  • Owen, The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia (2005)
  • C. Ricklefs et al., A New History of Southeast Asia (2010)
  • Kent E. Calder and Ming Ye, The Making of Northeast Asia (2010)
  • Warren Cohen, East Asia at the Centre (2000)
  • Charles Holcombe, A History of East Asia (2010)

Further information 

BA Global Liberal Arts

The BA programme is designed to ensure breadth and depth, allowing you to acquire expertise in a particular discipline and region, while encouraging you to place this in wider interdisciplinary and global contexts. It is also possible to explore a variety of disciplinary approaches and/or regional settings. All students will acquire the training in skills and methods they need to succeed in their chosen intellectual path.

Convenor:  Dr Angus Lockyer


Have you ever wondered how the world got to be the way it is? Take a closer look and you will see a few simple truths…

The World

A Short History of the World in 50 Minutes

(* Hasna Haidar, ‘What is Liberal Arts Education?’ QS Top Universities)



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