Globalizing Higher Education in the Liberal Arts

Tom Wood

Liberal arts education has been under attack recently in the U.S. as meaningless and irrelevant, but it is gaining a foothold in other countries. European countries have been the first to take an interest in American liberal arts education, and the introduction of this type of education has proceeded farthest there, but liberal education has attracted the attention of a number of countries elsewhere, including Japan and countries in the Middle East.

That is the message of a February 16 article in Inside Higher Ed by Elizabeth Redden. Redden’s article confirms the observation of earlier writers like Roger Cohen that liberal education has gotten legs and has great potential abroad. Almost a decade ago, Cohen was able to cite a number of liberal arts colleges and universities that had taken root abroad. These included Rice University’s International University in Bremen, Germany, a private research university modeled after Rice with a residential college system and small student-faculty ratio. Much of Cohen’s article covered Smolny College, run jointly by Bard College and St. Petersburg University. Other liberal arts institutions of higher education that Cohen mentioned in 2000 were Champlain College (United Arab Emirates, Tel Aviv, and Malaysia, with plans in 2000 for campuses in India, Singapore and Hong Kong), Farleigh Dickinson (Tel Aviv), St. Louis U. (Madrid), Temple U. (Rome, London, and Tokyo), the U. of Maryland, College Park (Germany), Webster U., St. Louis (Switzerland, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, China, Thailand and Bermuda), and the American Universities at Paris, Rome, Beirut, and Cairo.

It is of interest to us that other countries are beginning to introduce liberal education into their own higher education systems. It is often easier to see the virtues of the system one has when it is seen through others’ eyes. Viewing the difficulties that other cultures and societies have in adopting liberal education also illuminates the special character of this kind of education. Seeing the difficulties that other countries have had in introducing liberal education into their own systems of higher education helps to clarify what liberal education means to us.

One important lesson to be learned is that liberal education or liberal arts education isn’t just one thing: it covers many different things. Different observers and actors value some of these things more and discount others, depending on their own needs and educational philosophies.

Size has proven to be essential in some cases. For some institutions abroad that have adopted liberal arts education, the small residential college has been regarded as essential. As Hastings Rashdall and others have shown, the small residential college was actually the original model for all the oldest European universities like the universities of Paris and Bologna, but the system disappeared on the continent and survived in England. The small residential college model was also the original ideal of the oldest American universities, like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. They modeled themselves after the Oxbridge colleges, after the continental European alternative had been considered and rejected. In Europe and other countries, the small residential college model has occasionally been copied, and even large research universities on the German model have been broken down into smaller residential halls or units.

While the small residential college model has had its adherents in Europe and elsewhere, it has not been followed universally. One feature of liberal education that has been followed universally, however, has been the introduction of an intermediate or tertiary layer between pre-collegiate education and professional and graduate studies.

If one had to identify one thing that separates American higher education most definitively from the European, it is that liberal education is distinguished by its non-professional, non-vocational orientation. Europe and other countries have nothing like this in their prevailing systems of higher education. In Europe, for example, students who graduate from the academic high schools or secondary schools (gymnasia) must declare a profession or field they intend to specialize in when they apply to institutions of higher education. Higher education in these countries is therefore much more like our professional schools than our four-year colleges and universities. In Europe and elsewhere, the introduction of an intermediate level between high school and the professional degree in law, medicine, business, or public administration is new—even revolutionary.

This element of liberal education figures very prominently in the mission statement of The European Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences (ECOLAS), a consortium of liberal arts institutions there. ECOLAS defines the purpose of the liberal arts in the following way:

ECOLAS is about Liberal Arts & Sciences colleges or programs. In Anglo-Saxon countries this term applies to undergraduate university education. The defining characteristic of this type of education is its academic, as opposed to vocational, orientation. A Liberal Arts & Sciences degree prepares students for graduate programs, for research, as well as for the professions that require an academic degree. Not only do well-known colleges such as Amherst and Smith subscribe to this philosophy, but research universities like Harvard and Berkeley also organize their undergraduate divisions along the lines of this model.

Although this concept is new to Dutch (and most European) universities, it fits extremely well into our educational system. It is typical for the various levels of professional or vocational education in this country to be built upon a preceding level of general education. If we continue this line of thought, the university's graduate educational level (which is in fact a high-level professional education) should be preceded by a tertiary, in this case academic, form of general education. That is essentially what a Liberal Arts & Sciences college is about, and what has been made possible by the Bologna agreement. The added value of such a Liberal Arts & Science program lies in the emphasis on academic formation or Bildung. There are two main elements to this, the first of these being the cognitive – or knowledge – element. Essential to the program is the acquisition of academic qualities such as critical and independent thinking, the ability to collect and analyse data, to critically assess them, and the ability to think beyond the given data. But the cognitive element is only one aspect of academic formation. Typical for this philosophy is the connection between cognitive and moral competencies. Liberal Arts & Sciences stands for 'education' in the true sense of the word that is combining knowledge with moral alertness. Students and faculty display a high level of civic engagement, of moral commitment. They want to make a difference in the world and see knowledge as a means to inform their idealism so as to make their activities more effective.

According to Laurent Boetsch, a professor of romance languages at Washington and Lee University and president emeritus of the European College of Liberal Arts, a number of models are being followed in European liberal education. The residential college model is only one of these. According to Boetsch, the interdisciplinarity of liberal education—taking higher education outside narrow disciplinary cycles and the professional orientation of European higher education—is crucial. Some of this interdisciplinarity has already been integrated into some of Europe's larger research universities.

The importance of liberal education to the process of democratization in other countries is an aspect of the globalization of American liberal education that has been particularly emphasized by Susan Gillespie, the head of Bard College’s Institute for International Liberal Education (IILE). Thinking about this political aspect of liberal education, and the difficulty it poses to educators who want to introduce liberal education in other countries and cultures, shows how closely liberal arts education is interwoven with larger cultural values.

Introducing liberal education requires the introduction of notions of tolerance, critical thinking, and the ability to understand different points of view. Jonathan Becker, Dean of International Studies at Bard College, emphasizes how Bard’s interest in the democratization of other countries and their system of higher education is connected with the application of critical thinking to a wide range of disciplines and types of problems and issues. Dale Eickelman, a professor of anthropology and humans relations at Dartmouth College, who is involved with Dartmouth’s close partnership with American University of Kuwait, thinks introducing the concept of critical thinking is probably the best way of introducing countries like Kuwait to the ideal of American liberal education. He says (in the IHE article by Redden) that critical thinking is a more universal concept and one that is more readily understandable by other cultures than “liberal arts,” which is a “culture-bound term.”

In this country, we take the principles of democracy for granted, and find the notion of an educational system that enshrines critical thinking at the very heart of the educational enterprise as perfectly natural. But it is not natural. John Churchill, secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which several years ago co-sponsored a conference on Liberal Arts Education in America and the World, told Redden that this is an aspect of liberal education that is very hard to translate or introduce to another country that does not have the same system of “participatory democracy.” China has a very different concept of citizenship than we do, and this makes it hard, according to Churchill, to translate American educational values into a Chinese context.

In his New York Times article in 2000, Roger Cohen mentioned some of the pedagogical difficulties Bard College had experienced in introducing liberal education to Russia at Smolny College. In European universities, instruction does not involve dialogue between the professor and the students, or peer-to-peer interaction. Professors deliver lectures as monologues, and are regarded as highly authoritarian figures in and out of the classroom. Russian students and their professors have had a hard time adjusting to the very different pedagogy of liberal arts education.

Smolny, according to Cohen, has also faced a difficulty that is familiar to the American liberal arts university and its students: a concern that jobs will prove scarce for graduates. As in the U.S., this concern extends to parents, who have had difficulty appreciating or even understanding courses that do not lead to a specific career. This concern has led to a gender imbalance at Smolny, since men are convinced that the existing educational system is likely to provide better career opportunities. Eighty percent of the first students at Smolny were women. Yuri Fedotov, an administrator at St. Petersburg University, told Cohen: 'For government agencies and state businesses, the old five-year specialist degree is still favored.'

Russian society, however, is undergoing changes that favor the growth of liberal education there. Russian industries are demanding university graduates with a knowledge of computers and English. “Enter Smolny College,” Cohen says, “offering English, access to foreign capital and a real marriage of Western and Russian ideas. It is clearly a model with potential.”

Cohen may have underestimated the competitive advantage that an institution like Smolny can offer in Russian society—advantages that go beyond knowledge of computers and English. Jonathan Becker of Bard College identifies some of these in a valuable essay on liberal arts education at the IILE website. He cites a World Bank report on education in Europe and Central Asia that stresses that these countries are shifting from centrally planned to market economies. According to the World Bank Report, this shift

will increasingly require workers with better information-processing, problem-solving, and knowing how-to-learn to-learn skills. Available international test data show that ECA (Europe and Central Asia) countries are significantly behind OECD countries in many such skills.

These are exactly the skills that liberal arts education can develop, and they are the skills that American business continues to seek in university graduates. It is ironic that other countries are beginning to appreciate the importance of these educational values at the very time that they have come under attack here in this country.

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