Over the past two months, while on a recruiting mission for Duke Kunshan University, I have visited dozens of international schools in many countries all over Asia. Today there are thousands of international schools in Asia, and their numbers are growing dramatically, but even so they are not keeping up with demand. Most of these schools are preparing their students for study in the USA, UK, Canada, and Australia or less frequently in English-language universities in their home countries. Most of these international schools offer either IB or AP programs, both of which provide excellent preparation for liberal arts college education. If these international schools are any indicator, the growth of English-language higher educational programs in Asia would be most welcomed, and governments, societies, parents, and other stakeholders should take advantage. British universities are cottoning on to this trend in a big way. There are a growing number of British universities building campuses in Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Americans, the leading proponents of liberal arts education in the world, are less active in this region, though now Yale, Duke, NYU, and a few other intrepid explorers are leading the way. For the rest of you out there, I have a simple message: The time to invest in liberal arts education in Asia is now!
In my current capacity as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at Duke Kunshan University in China, I have seen firsthand the benefits of a liberal arts and sciences education (henceforth I will just call this “liberal arts” for simplicity’s sake) for hundreds of Chinese students. In our Global Learning Semester program, which is now in its fourth and final year, we offer undergraduate students from China, the USA, India and other countries a semester of broad course offerings in liberal arts and sciences. These courses are taught mainly by Duke University professors, who come to China mainly for the experience of teaching our students. For most if not all of the students in our GLS program, the results of just one semester of liberal arts-style learning have been truly transformative. And if one semester can change lives, imagine what four years can do.
Chinese university students come to our program from large universities all over China. They are used to taking large classes taught lecture-style by faculty who are not always fully engaged in the teaching aspect of their careers. In Chinese universities, there is a great deal of pressure on faculty to earn grant money and produce large quantities of research output. Teaching undergraduate classes is seldom evaluated either by students or by peers, and as a result it is not generally rewarded or refined. Students rarely get to know their professors well in this system. Their papers and assignments are not always carefully vetted nor are they given proper feedback. Plagiarism and other acts of academic misconduct are often not taken that seriously.
My conversations with students in our GLS program over the past two years indicate that overall there is a great deal of dissatisfaction and disengagement among students in many Chinese universities, even top ones. After studying so hard for the grueling gaokao exam system, students are rewarded with admission to an elite university. There they get to study with equally high-achieving (or test-scoring) classmates and earn a prestigious degree, but often they don't receive the sort of higher education they truly deserve. To its resounding credit, in the past few decades China has done a remarkable job of increasing the overall numbers of students receiving a higher education in the world’s most populous country. Now, the growing realization in China is that quantity is not enough, and that in the end, to compete successfully in a highly dynamic, connected, and highly technologized world, not to mention one in which enormous global problems and challenges are becoming increasingly apparent, quality will be what truly matters.
In China today, in addition to Duke Kunshan University, which plans to offer a four-year undergraduate degree program starting in 2018, there is a small but growing number of other universities, both joint venture and otherwise, who are trying to change this situation by offering a more high-quality student-focused education for Chinese university students. These universities are also trying to attract more students from abroad, who benefit from the deep dive into Chinese language, culture and society as well as the friendships they make with their Chinese classmates. The Chinese students also benefit from interacting with foreign students from many different parts of the world and taking in widely different perspectives on a range of subjects and issues. To be sure, in a country as massive as China, these universities are only a drop in the bucket. Yet even a drop can act as a major catalyst for change.
NYU Shanghai is another example of a liberal arts university now operating in China. Located in the middle of Pudong’s Lujiazui financial district, the campus claims to have roughly a 50% Chinese and 50% international student body. After four years of operation, they recently graduated their first class in 2017 and are on their way to reaching their intended capacity. I have visited the campus many times to give guest lectures and book talks and to attend international conferences, and I can attest firsthand to the vibrancy of the international teaching and learning community they are building. While a big focus is on business and finance (hence the location in the city’s financial district), many undergraduates study a range of liberal arts subjects and majors, and they must complete several core courses that subject them to areas and methods of inquiry they might not otherwise explore.
Elsewhere in Asia, liberal arts and science programs are also gaining some ground. Yonsei University in Seoul has been running a small English-language liberal arts undergraduate program known as Underwood College for over ten years now, and my visits there over the years confirm that they are indeed serving their students well, though not without certain challenges in terms of integrating students into a larger Korean-language university environment. In Tokyo, Sophia University, where my Shanghai Nightscapes co-author Dr. James Farrer has been teaching for almost twenty years, runs a liberal arts program largely focused on arts, humanities, and social sciences, which has been around for over half a century.
Yale NUS, which I visited for the first time last week, is another prime example. Nestled in the much larger campus of National University Singapore, Yale NUS is a small liberal arts college of around 1000 students with a residential campus of its own. It is a very cozy campus indeed, designed to maximize interactions between students and also between students and faculty, many of whom live on the campus or nearby. The program requires students to take several core courses that require students to learn broadly and also draw connections among different disciplines. Students are able to explore during their first two years and eventually choose a major in arts, humanities, social science, or science subjects. Like NYU Shanghai, Yale NUS just graduated its first class in 2017.
One American sophomore whom I met on the Yale NUS campus, who happens to hail from my home state of Massachusetts, described how she is currently in a struggle with herself but also with her parents to choose her major. She originally intended to study economics, which she thought would lead to good job prospects. Yet after taking one of the courses in the common curriculum during her freshman year, she found philosophy more to her liking. Unlike most philosophy programs in the USA, this course offers comparative readings between Chinese and western philosophical traditions, which speaks to another advantage of offering liberal arts in an Asian setting.
This gets us to the crux of what a liberal arts education is all about. In contrast to most universities in Asia or the British system for that matter, where students are locked into majors upon entering in their first year, students in a liberal arts school have a chance to explore different areas of knowledge and modes of inquiry before settling into their chosen focus of study. Even then, they still have plenty of opportunities to take elective courses that continue to expand their range of knowledge and interests in other subjects. As a result, students emerge from their undergraduate education with specialized knowledge in a specific area, but also with the ability and interest to relate to many different fields of knowledge, which they can continue to learn and study on their own for the rest of their lives.
In Asia, as elsewhere in the world, there is a strong tendency for students to want to major in STEM fields, which parents also tend to support since job prospects are more apparent. Engineering is also quite popular, especially among male students. There is nothing wrong with any of these majors and in fact these are part of good liberal arts and science programs as well. The big difference is two-fold. First, in liberal arts schools, students choose these major areas as an organic process of selection over the first two years of college, thus ensuring that they are both capable and highly motivated to take on these challenging fields of endeavor. Second, they continue to learn other subject areas and to do so with a high level of engagement, thus emerging (theoretically at least) as more well-rounded and interesting human beings than if they had just studied their major subjects. Moreover, upon graduation, they still have many pathways open to them as they build their careers. While the immediate job prospects or salaries of some liberal arts majors may not be as appealing upon graduation, studies have shown that over time their liberal arts education makes them far more competitive in their later years.
The other key difference is that in liberal arts learning environments, particularly in smaller colleges, students tend to interact very closely with their professors. This might include having lunch or dinner together, being invited to a professor’s home for a special occasion, or just spending hours in a professor’s office chatting. As an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, I experienced all of these things with regularity, and I still keep in touch with some of my profs over 25 years after my graduation in 1991. Professors in liberal arts teaching and learning environments thus serve as mentors, advisers, guides, and role models for students in ways that they tend not to do in larger and more impersonal university environments.
Now, the flip side of all this close attention to teaching and learning is that liberal arts educations are expensive. Whether in China or abroad, the cost of attending private liberal arts colleges is much higher by an order of magnitude than attending a large public university. There is no getting around the expense of offering small classes and a low student-faculty ratio, not to mention all of the other added values that having a student-focused learning environment offers. For large Asian countries like China, India, and Indonesia, which have to educate millions of people, liberal arts programs are not an easy solution, even if they were valued more highly than they currently are. Still, if governments and societies were to put in the collective effort, they could find ways to make liberal arts programs more widely available and more accessible and affordable for more students. There is no question that much more could be done to provide liberal arts education in Asia than is currently the case.
Part of the reason is that those families in Asia who can afford to do so tend to send their children abroad to America, the UK, Australia, or Canada for their higher educations. This enriches or at least helps to sustain liberal arts schools in the USA (which are under attack for other reasons) but it does little or nothing for the student’s home country. Wealthier families in Asia are increasingly recognizing the value of liberal arts education, but they choose the export model, sending their students abroad rather than contributing to the building of liberal arts educational programs in their own home countries. There are multiple reasons for this, but the overall effect is a drain of top students out of Asia. How many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Koreans, Indians and other university students eventually return to their home countries to live, work and contribute to society once they have spent several years living abroad and are now integrated culturally and socially into their host countries?
This brings us to another problem with this export model, which is the growing numbers of students from China, Korea, and elsewhere studying in universities abroad. These students are increasingly less integrated into the learning environments of their host institutions and countries.
When I was at Dartmouth College in the late 1980s, the school had relatively few Chinese students. Because I was a Chinese language student and an Asian Studies major, I knew many of them quite well. While the Chinese students tended to befriend each other, they were also integrated in many ways into the broader campus community. Most of them chose to stay in America and they built successful and rewarding careers there. Those who moved back to China or Asia had great advantages over their peers because of their cross-cultural skills. No doubt this is still true for the much larger number of Chinese students studying at Dartmouth today.
To be sure, Dartmouth is probably exceptional in this regard. In many larger universities, especially large state schools in the USA, the sheer number of students from China enrolling in these institutions is creating an enormous problem. Many of these students choose to stay within their own national and/or regional communities in their social interactions, and the universities themselves tend to do a very poor job of helping these students to integrate to the larger university community. In fact, many of the students do not possess the requisite English language foundation to do so effectively, and being surrounded by others like them does not help their situation. This is true to an extent for other large Asian student communities such as Koreans, though Chinese students have been the ones making headlines lately.
Given this situation, why aren’t governments and societies in Asia doing more to encourage the growth of liberal arts and science programs in their own countries and regions? To some extent, they are indeed awakening to the enormity of the situation. In China, Korea, Japan, India, and elsewhere in Asia there is a small but growing movement to provide more liberal arts educational opportunities in the home countries. In fact, according to a study by Kara Godwin, among the growth of liberal arts institutions abroad, Asia claims the highest number. Obstacles to this growth include lack of knowledge, experience and resources, misinterpreting what a liberal arts education is really about, misunderstandings of both students and parents regarding the value of a liberal arts education, and other factors such as the desire of governments to channel campus discourse along ideological lines. The latter tendency runs contrary to the very nature of a liberal arts education, which encourages students and professors to consider, discuss, and debate many different points of view and back them up with evidence and analytical thinking. In other words, critical and independent thinking, a skill valued highly by most liberal arts universities, may not be so highly valued by some governments in this part of the world.
That said, I would argue that the practical value of liberal arts education greatly outweighs the perceived dangers to Asian states that seek to discipline and control their citizens in ways that liberal democracies don’t (or else do so more subtly). My conversations with colleagues at Yale NUS last week indicated that the liberal arts model they have built has already begun to have an impact on NUS and other institutions in Singapore, who benefit from the example of a small college that tries out new ideas and new ways of teaching and learning. The same is or will be undoubtedly true for other countries in which liberal arts programs are allowed to flourish. Getting back to the drop in the bucket metaphor: if it’s the right substance, that drop can catalyze a much larger change in the contents of that bucket. And ultimately, whether they fully admit it or not, this is what governments in Asia really want.
If governments, societies, cities, and families in Asia put the same resources into expanding liberal arts programs at home as they do into shipping their youths thousands of kilometers across the world for their undergraduate and post-graduate educations, the results could be truly transformative. By offering liberal arts programs in the home country, countries in Asia can ensure that more of their students remain closer to their families and societies, and that those students in turn can have a greater positive impact on their own societies upon graduation. Students benefit from being educated on their home turf and not having to undergo the culture shock of living and studying on campuses dominated by American, Australian, or British students. They can still go to these countries for briefer study abroad experiences. Upon graduating, if they have played their cards right, they will be well-equipped to attend graduate programs in prestigious American, European, or Australian universities. This then grounds them more in their own societies (why not spend a few more years of one’s youth close to friends and family?) but it does not limit their potential to eventually study and work abroad if they so desire.
Underlying this trend is the need for English-language educational programs in Asia. Once again, these are expensive, since they require professors who have either spent a considerable number of years studying and teaching abroad or else have grown up abroad to begin with. It is not so easy for these professors to adjust to living and working in countries like China, Japan, Korea, or India (Singapore is a bit easier but still has issues for foreign scholars living and working there). Nevertheless, English-language education is important because English is the primary language for higher education in the world today. Regardless of the problematic colonial history of the British and more recently the American empire in Asia, this is simply a fact that all universities and students based in Asia must acknowledge in some way or other.
Perhaps someday, when universities in China have achieved comparable if not superior levels of quality and not just quantity in terms of teaching and research outputs to the top universities in the UK and USA, there will be many Chinese-language liberal arts programs all over the world. As a person who has spent much of his adult life studying Chinese language, culture, and society, and close to two decades living in China, I welcome such a day. Meanwhile we must reconcile ourselves to the fact, or at least the broad perception, that the most useful language of higher learning in the world today remains English. Still, there is no need to go to an English-speaking country for one’s secondary or higher education if those institutions and resources exist at home.