Asia and the Future of the Liberal Arts

A few months ago, I had a conversation with Pericles Lewis, Founding President of Yale-NUS (Singapore), about the reception and current status of the liberal arts in Asia. In 2011, Yale University collaborated with the National University of Singapore to establish that nation's first residential liberal arts college, setting the standard for all other institutions seeking to expand the western liberal arts model.

While our conversation mainly dwelt on the logistics of managing such a project, it gave rise to a couple of challenges that proponents of the liberal arts still face in Asia. Even as Yale-NUS continues to grow, attracting and nurturing the world's best and brightest, two crucial doubts remain in the minds of many in Asia:

(1) What is there that is particularly useful about a liberal arts education?, and

(2) Is the liberal arts model just another form of western incursion--a soft-power, cultural infiltration?

Unsurprisingly, both are questions presently debated in the United States. The nation's growing uncertainty regarding its global preeminence naturally intensifies such discussion.

This ongoing questioning of the usefulness of the liberal arts in the United States resembles what many Asian nations themselves underwent during the Western incursions of the mid-late nineteenth century.

Following the humiliating defeats of the Opium Wars, the Chinese began reassessing the merits of their own traditional learning grounded in the Confucian classics and notions of enlightened statesmanship. Many advocated for the adoption of a new Western-style education to help fortify the nation. A famously touted compromise among intellectuals was struck, conveyed in the motto: 中体西用 "Chinese learning for the foundation, Western learning for pragmatic purposes." While Western learning in this case mainly meant study in the military, political, medical and natural sciences, it was not divorced from the broader intellectual and artistic traditions of Europe.

With the rise of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, China, India, Indonesia, and others, and their growing claim to shares of economic, political and cultural authority, the United States finds itself caught in a moment of self-doubt. US academics, researchers, policy makers and educators, their own varied class of mandarin bureaucrats, now argue the need to look to Asia to increase testing rigor and standards, or perhaps further de-emphasize them, as a way to regain dominance.

At this year's summer retreat at Centre College, the faculty discussed the nature and significance of the liberal arts and how to best defend them. It became clear very quickly that, given the current political climate, the most effective way to convince ourselves of the enduring relevance of the liberal arts and humanities was to embed them in that century-old Chinese category of pragmatic functionality, 西用: what kind of core and marketable skills does liberal arts education offer to a global market?

I find it interesting that what has for centuries been the educational foundation in the West is now transforming into a utility. In a curious twist of historical fate, the western liberal arts find themselves headed into a process of self-occidentalization. In other words, usefulness has become such a powerful educational paradigm that the cultural foundations of the West, our own 体,​ risk becoming subject to the pure assessment of their serviceability 用. Naturally, there is much to be argued about the original utility of both traditional Chinese and European educations--being a respected and effective minister and leader depended precisely on such knowledge centuries ago. That this may no longer be the case is precisely why the world sits in debate of both the foundational nature and utility of the western liberal arts.

I am of the opinion that cultural foundations are invaluable and uncommutable. They ground students in a place and its history, offering inestimable opportunities for individual and communal meaning-making. The acquisition of skills without attention to this kind of foundation leads to a life of spiritual impoverishment.

The gradual inflation of the utility of the liberal arts will make them less effective as a foundation for meaning and belonging. It may make them more marketable as exchangeable tools, but the market will shift their value and find new substitutes that can help students learn to write, read and speak equally well without the study of western arts, literature and foreign languages.

This position, of course, might imply a rather poor and unpopular response to the second question still nagging parents in Asia: it would seem that this kind of inherent privileging of the western liberal arts smacks of cultural imperialism. This needn't be the case, however, for all cultures should be deemed equally invaluable. A liberal arts education, whether established at home or abroad, will necessarily enter into a rich and vibrant dialogue with other traditions, and not with an aim at substitution.

This is where new schools like Yale-NUS become such exciting experiments, rethinking the centrality, flexibility, mobility, and general fitness of western foundations in a liberal arts education.

I predict the mutual invigoration of cultural appreciation for Asian and western cultural foundations.

A renaissance of the liberal arts at home and abroad? (And perhaps a marketable skill in a global economy...).