Liberal-Arts Education: Has the Global Migration Stalled?

June 18, 2012

New efforts to develop liberal-arts education in Asia have recently grabbed headlines and generated a buzz in academe. Yale University is helping Singapore build a liberal-arts college, for instance, while in Malaysia, a new liberal-arts institution for women is being developed under the wing of Smith College. Such work has led some observers to speculate that we are on the cusp of a global resurgence of liberal education, spurred in part by an increase in international outreach by American colleges and universities.

However, we need to be cautious about such pronouncements. The examples of Yale and others, such as New York University's liberal-arts college in Abu Dhabi and Bard's affiliated colleges in Russia and Germany, are so far only islands in an uneven global sea of undergraduate education. And while there are some interesting indigenous efforts to revamp the undergraduate curriculum in places like China, the big question is whether liberal education can develop on its own, with deep indigenous roots, and be available to larger numbers of students, particularly in developing countries that face rapidly growing demand for higher education.

That is why China, having made a commitment to widespread reform of undergraduate education, is a key country to watch. What is happening in the universities of Hong Kong, as well as those on the mainland, presents a curricular model capable of reaching many students. The introduction of general education is viewed as an important aspect of Chinese universities' ability to be world class and to prepare their students to meet the demands of a fast-changing, increasingly competitive global environment.

However, if it truly encourages liberal education, this may lead to unintended consequences. Exposing students to a broad spectrum of ideas and habits of critical inquiry may result in a more questioning student body and citizenry. At this point, it's not clear how freely and broadly Western liberal arts and Chinese cultural studies will be featured in mainland China's new curriculum.

A substantial number of required courses in political ideology and military science persist at China's universities. If such deeply integrated ideological views continue to pervade the curriculum and are presented for automatic acceptance, it will be virtually impossible for the spirit of liberal education to gain traction and flourish. What finally emerges from this reform effort will merit careful attention to determine where it fits in the spectrum of the global migration of liberal education.

In other countries where vast numbers of people have no access to higher education, a commitment to liberal-arts education at the undergraduate level is often viewed as an unaffordable luxury. For those fortunate to be admitted, there is no opportunity for intellectual exploration. They move directly to their chosen fields of study.

Why, then, should the option of liberal education be considered? First, the forces of globalization and rapidly expanding knowledge mean that hyperspecialization and narrow training can leave countries and their citizens on the slag pile of obsolescence. And second, nation building is complicated; it requires more than just economic development. A strong civil society is an essential ingredient, and educating citizens to participate meaningfully and peacefully in national-development discussions can be a function of a liberal-arts education.

But developing and transitional countries often feel that they face a litany of Solomon's choices: human development versus economic development, enlightenment versus employment, individual benefit versus societal benefit, general education versus professional and vocational education, and teaching versus research. Nations that become world leaders embrace a combination of all of those dimensions.

If liberal education is to flourish and continue its global migration, it must take on myriad forms, adapting to local needs and circumstances. That may include stand-alone liberal-arts institutions as well as hybrid models where it is woven into specialized education. While there may not be a resurgent global movement of liberal education, there are signs that it is at least being viewed as a necessary component of a first-class education. Such developments open the door to new and exciting possibilities.

Patti McGill Peterson is the presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education and the author of Confronting Challenges to the Liberal Arts Curriculum: Perspectives of Developing and Transitional Countries (Routledge, 2012).