Higher Education

While liberal arts decline in U.S., China and other economic rivals add them

Driven by business leaders, trend seeks to turn out graduates with needed skills

HONG KONG — Businessman Po Chung might seem an unlikely advocate for the virtues of a U.S.-style liberal education.

Cofounder of the Asia Pacific branch of shipping giant DHL, Chung is a rags-to-riches entrepreneur whose success is emblematic of the former colony’s hard-driving capitalist culture.

But he’s also one of the leading advocates for adding a big dose of humanities and social sciences to the curriculum of Hong Kong’s universities.

Chung and other backers of an unprecedented three-year-old reform effort are determined to move the city’s eight universities away from the rote learning, test obsession and narrow career focus that still characterize much of the Asian education system. They think it’s past time for colleges to introduce a broader range of subjects, to promote greater intellectual curiosity, and to foster creative thinking. And they’re convinced that these changes will, in turn, build a workforce of rigorous, creative thinkers — just what they think is needed to meet the fast-changing needs of a transforming economy.

To one degree or another, this kind of liberal arts approach has long been a distinctive feature of American colleges and universities. In fact, U.S. undergraduate education is the explicit model for Hong Kong’s liberal education campaign. A cadre of U.S. Fulbright scholars was even imported to implement the plan.

Even as Hong Kong and some other Asian countries are embracing everything from art history to sociology as necessary components of undergraduate coursework, however, the United States is moving in the opposite direction.

With tuition high and student debt mounting, and students and parents worried about the prospect of post-graduation unemployment or underemployment, many Americans think of higher education in increasingly utilitarian terms. The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded that are in humanities disciplines has dropped to 6 percent from a peak of 17 percent in 1968.

Hong Kongers certainly care about commercial imperatives, too. But for Chung, who spent part of his undergraduate career at Whittier College, a liberal arts college in Southern California, producing the responsible, economically productive citizens Hong Kong needs goes hand in hand with the habits of mind inculcated by the liberal arts.

Related: In era of high costs, humanities come under attack

General education, one of the terms Hong Kong uses for its new offerings, produces graduates “who are critical and creative thinkers, problem solvers, gifted communicators, team managers and ethical leaders,” Chung wrote in a South China Morning Post op-ed. Throw in the “creative communities of innovation” built by the liberal arts, he argued, and the result is pragmatic: skills “for which employers are willing to pay the highest salaries.”

Beyond such economically driven reasoning, there are more subtle, but potentially far-reaching motivations for the liberal arts reform, when seen through the lens of Hong Kong’s battles with the central government in Beijing. In the wake of passionate pro-democracy student protests, Hong Kong residents feel deep anxiety about preserving academic freedom in the city’s universities, together with gloomy skepticism about whether the mainland government will hold to its promise of “one country, two systems.” Against this backdrop, in addition to helping economic growth, spreading liberal arts education holds at least a modest promise of bolstering the forces of liberal democracy.

When Hong Kong’s education reforms went into effect in the fall of 2012, the practical changes were immediate. They altered both the form and content of secondary and university education in the city of seven million. Secondary school students, who for several years had begun taking a new liberal studies requirement, now graduated one year earlier. At universities, a full year was added to what had been a three-year undergraduate degree sequence. Much of undergraduates’ additional time on campus was filled with new courses designed to broaden their academic experience.

Referred to variously as common core, general education or liberal education, the new curriculum was a major shift from the British model, in which undergraduates usually study one subject exclusively.

Given autonomy over how they put the changes into action, most institutions opted for pick-and-choose distribution requirements across four or so categories, such as humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, China studies and “global issues.” The Chinese University of Hong Kong, however, required some specific classes — a core curriculum requirement akin to the University of Chicago’s Great Books sequence. A common core like this now also makes up close to one-third of undergraduate coursework at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, or HKUST.

The chance to take classes in a wide range of fields holds enormous appeal for students like Sivaraam “Shiv” Muthukumar, a fourth-year HKUST undergraduate studying mechanical engineering and business management.

“I do not know what I’m going to do after university, but I do know what I want to become,” Muthukumar says. “I’ve always had in mind that I wanted to be a Renaissance man.”

But implementing an educational approach that departed so much from the status quo was complicated. Chung himself put up a matching donation of $1 million — supplemented by government and university funds — to bring in a group of 24 American Fulbright scholars to help. The rationale was that the Fulbrights, many of them faculty at U.S universities who came to Hong Kong for one-year stints, had the on-the-ground skills needed to consult with traditional research universities and help them make the transition to a more liberal arts-oriented model.

Few in Hong Kong justified their efforts to import liberal arts on the basis of sheer love of learning. Instead, as in other Asian countries that have taken interest in the U.S. approach

“It’s all about talent,” said Glenn Shive, a U.S. expat who administered the Fulbright program as head of the Hong Kong-America Center and is now vice president for programs at the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia.

Universities had been producing memorizers with narrow, career-focused training, rather than the entrepreneurial problem-solvers the business sector wants, Shive said. By contrast, he said, Asians who have studied in the United States learn to think “beyond the conventional wisdom,” which is why the U.S. liberal arts model has growing appeal.

Related: The surprising institutions that refuse to drop the liberal arts

The interest in a new model, though driven in part by political and social factors, can be explained in large measure by Hong Kong’s dramatic shift in just a few decades from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, said Gerard Postiglione, chair professor of Sociology and Educational Policy at the University of Hong Kong, who heads the Wah Ching Centre of Research on Education in China. The specialized British-style system had many strengths, he said, but it didn’t do enough to help Hong Kong compete with what are known as the four S’s: Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney and Singapore.” The city “had to move toward a more innovative mode to stoke creativity.”

While advocates remain optimistic, there’s no consensus yet about how successful the three-year-old experiment has been. The reform has never extended to the creation of freestanding U.S.-style liberal arts colleges in the mold of Amherst or Reed. Instead, the focus has been on the two other components of liberal education: curricula that broaden students’ intellectual horizons and interactive teaching methods that give them the tools to become rigorous and creative thinkers.

Approaches are vast and varied. Students at the Chinese University, for example, study Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of the mandatory core curriculum, while undergraduates at the University of Hong Kong have the option of enrolling in classes like “The Press, the Public, and the Public Sphere,” in partial fulfillment of the humanities distribution requirement, one of four “areas of inquiry.”

There are some obstacles. Universities have tried to combine lectures with small discussion-based tutorials, but financial constraints sometimes mean that classes are too large for meaningful interaction between professors and students.

Nor are faculty always on board with the changes. Some prefer to lecture as they always have. Those who do use the new approach find that it can be hard to get students to open up and speak freely when they’re used to listening to lectures, taking notes and regurgitating the answers they think professors want on exams.

As for students, those pursuing traditional professional degrees in engineering, medicine, and law often view the new requirements as a waste of time, a distraction from their progress toward a useful degree. Others call the new approach eye-opening.

Just as higher education in the United States is moving in the opposite direction, a growing numbers of other countries have launched liberal arts or general education programs in their colleges and universities.

A research initiative known as the Global Liberal Education Inventory catalogs 183 non-U.S. liberal education programs. It demonstrates particularly strong interest in Asia, where 37 percent of these programs are located, mostly in China, India and Japan. Europe comes a close second, with 32 percent of non-U.S. liberal arts programs.

Related: Academics forced to prove their worth

The programs have grown quickly, according to a recent analysis by the creator of the inventory, Kara Godwin of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. While the number remains small in most countries compared to traditional degree pathways, the uptick is unmistakable: Almost 60 percent of non-U.S. liberal education programs were started since 1990, and fully 44 percent came into existence just in the past 15 years.

In Asia, beyond Hong Kong, liberal arts programs have been introduced at institutions ranging from Seoul National University and Japan’s Waseda University to Fudan University in Shanghai. In addition, branch campuses such as NYU-Shanghai, and partnerships such as Yale-NUS College in Singapore, reflect Asia’s growing interest in U.S.-style liberal education.

As the Hong Kong experience shows, the desire to foster economic development is a significant component of the trend. Asian governments “understand that overhauling their higher-education systems is required to sustain economic growth in a postindustrial, knowledge-based global economy,” Richard Levin, the former president of Yale and now CEO of the online learning provider Coursera, has written.

They realize, wrote Levin, that students “who aspire to be leaders in business, medicine, law, government, or academia,” need the ability “to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, confront new facts, and find creative ways to solve problems.”

It’s too soon to evaluate the success of Hong Kong’s liberal arts programs. Still, the efforts that have been made to explore the economic value of a liberal arts education ­— mostly conducted by advocates, to be sure — suggest that the educational approach now gaining worldwide interest may have economic as well as other benefits.

Measured purely in terms of earning power, considerable evidence shows that students who major in traditional liberal arts subjects, particularly those who study humanities, make considerably less on average than their counterparts upon graduation (assuming, skeptics might add, that they have jobs at all).

But by their peak earning years, from ages 56 to 60, workers who had undergraduate majors in the humanities or social sciences earn slightly more annually­ — $2.000 — than those with professional or pre-professional majors such as nursing or business, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has reported. Engineering graduates have higher earnings than workers who majored in all other fields, but the 40 percent of humanities and social science majors who go on to obtain graduate and professional degrees see an earnings premium of close to $20,000 a year.

Related: Study backs liberal arts, but questions graduates’ competence

In Hong Kong, Po Chung and his fellow advocates for the liberal arts think Renaissance men or women are more likely than garden variety lawyers or engineers to be rigorous, creative thinkers of the kind entrepreneurial economies need.

In his South China Morning News article, Chung suggested that the liberal arts can also be politically liberating. Hong Kong’s general education reform, he wrote, “will not yield its full benefits unless teachers and students are permitted to use appropriate general education practices that allow different opinions and values to coexist harmoniously in a safe learning environment—not only in the classroom, but in society and within the halls of government.”

Since then, Beijing has made heavy-handed efforts to control Hong Kong University’s leadership. But pro-democracy student activists, who took liberal studies in high school and have begun taking common core curriculum in their universities, have demonstrated against this. Beijing’s crackdown might actually have had the unintended consequence of fueling the democracy movement.

Ben Wildavsky is director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and policy professor at the University at Albany, and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World. This article is adapted from a chapter in the Kauffman Foundation’s New Entrepreneurial Growth Agenda and was provided by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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