WHEN I entered St. Lawrence University as a freshman, some of my classmates and some faculty members seemed surprised. They wondered why I, an Englishman, would choose an American liberal arts education when I had the British universities, which they obviously considered superior, at my disposal. I thought then, and I still believe, it is the American system that is superior. First-year university students in Great Britain elect to study one subject for three years - four years for some scientific fields. The major drawback in this plan is that, at 17 years of age, most students aren't equipped to decide on a final course of study.
In comparison, at most US liberal arts colleges, a major is not declared until the end of the sophomore year. This two-year extension offers a chance to study a range of subjects from different departments before a final commitment is made. Choosing a major in Britain at such an early stage means that students tend to over-specialize, encounter a narrower academic experience and, as a result, frequently need to switch majors when they discover their true calling.
In England, most universities require degree exams at the end of each academic year. These generate an enormous amount of pressure for students, particularly those (and every school has them) who tend to leave their work until the last minute. Assessment at liberal arts schools, on the other hand, is made on a continual basis. A typical course might require a midterm and final examination, periodic quizzes, and an extensive research paper. The less-focused liberal arts evaluation systems tolerates the odd mistake, whereas a whole year's worth of studying in England can be erased with one poorly taken final.
Education must also be seen as a transitional step toward a future career. In this area, the difference between the two systems is most pronounced.
According to ``CV: The College Magazine,'' 40 percent of all British graduates go into employment areas for which they have not studied. Here at St. Lawrence, over 80 percent of the graduates pursue careers unrelated to their majors, a statistic typical of liberal arts schools across the country. Armed with an array of transferable skills and interests, liberal arts graduates are flexible, and therefore more marketable when venturing into the workplace for the first time.
While a liberal arts degree is not for everyone, it does supply a broad background in the arts, sciences, and humanities without sacrificing the opportunity for detailed study in one particular area. For those wishing to enter graduate school, the doors are wide open. And those leaving to embark on any number of careers are much better prepared for the outside world and the challenges which lie ahead than their peers across the Atlantic.