Liberally Educating China

GUANGZHOU AND HONG KONG, China -- A recent trip to China, the country of my parents, was a journey not to the past, but to the future -- the future of higher education in China. At a time when the U.S. is questioning the value of a liberal arts education, China and other countries are discovering its worth.

China has invested heavily in its universities, which customarily offer career-oriented curricula from engineering to tourism. Yet there is increasing dissatisfaction with regard to the products of the Chinese educational system. Graduates master specific bodies of knowledge relevant to their work, learning by rote in classrooms where lectures predominate, but they are oftentimes unable to adapt that knowledge to new situations or to be innovative in creating new solutions to problems. They don't know how to think critically. In 2012, Hong Kong's universities transitioned from a three-year baccalaureate to a four-year program in order to make room for more general education beyond a given major. That same year at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Lingnan (University) College, one of the nation's prestigious business schools, introduced a new undergraduate curriculum that adds liberal learning to studies in business, embracing general education and the cultivation of critical thinking, communication skills, and social awareness. It is advertised as an education not only of the intellect, but of the whole person.

As the President of Ursinus College, a Pennsylvania undergraduate liberal arts college, I was invited by Lingnan (University) College and Hong Kong Baptist University to speak about general education and high-impact pedagogies to students, faculty, and administrators embarked on this new venture in liberal learning. I also spoke to 300 high school students in Guangzhou about opportunities to study at U.S. colleges. I was aware, however, that interest in what I had to say had much to do with interest in who I was, the son of Cantonese immigrants returning to the homeland with insights gleaned from a lifetime's experience in American higher education.

Both my father and mother descended from a small village outside of Zhongshan, China. My father was raised in Saigon where his parents ran a dry goods store, but he returned to Zhongshan in 1937 to find a wife. My older sister was born in 1938, and that same year father visited the United States. Given the Japanese incursion into China, he could not return, and he was separated from his family through World War II. After the war, father determined to bring his family to America to benefit from its social stability and opportunity. Immigration visas were hard to obtain, and my father bought papers that enabled my mother to come to the U.S., but at the cost of having to leave my sister with relatives in Hong Kong.

Father and mother were reunited in 1948; I was born in 1950; and my younger sister in 1952. Father died that same year of a stroke; he was 39, leaving a widow with two infants in the U.S. and a daughter in Hong Kong. Mother went to work at a sewing factory, a sweatshop, in Oakland, Calif., to support the family, and she was able to sponsor my older sister to the U.S. in 1958. The children in Chinatown where I lived did not learn to speak English until we started kindergarten. Mother stressed the importance of education, and I was expected to succeed in school: only A's would do. I earned a scholarship to Harvard University, but my mother died the year before I left for college. I eventually earned degrees in English literature and in 1978 embarked on a career as a professor and administrator at five liberal arts colleges and universities.

My story struck home with my Chinese audiences: it was self-evident that parents would sacrifice for their children. They also understood that education was the royal avenue to advancement. Together, we quickly agreed on the primacy of education as the means for both individual and national progress.

In China Road, Rob Gifford quoted a Shanghai woman who lamented, "We are training technicians. We are not training people." Technical education is insufficient for a world in which 30 percent of college graduates eventually will work in jobs that don't yet exist. Citizens of the future need to be able to recreate themselves; they need a liberal education where they learn how to learn. Liberal education ultimately involves the cultivation of judgment: the application of the appropriate knowledge, skills and values to particular situations. It necessarily addresses the development of the whole person, a training not only of the intellect, but of disposition and character. Liberal education enables one to work and live independently, creatively and responsibly.

Andrew Delbanco, author of College: What It Was, Is and Should Be, said that "China and India are looking at our liberal arts tradition. The rest of the world is coming to get what we've got, while we're in the process of giving it up." I went to China at a time when perceptions of the purpose of higher education in America are in flux. Both governmental and private voices call for an increase in the number of college graduates, driven too often by a narrow focus on career preparation and economic competitiveness. The response in the U.S. has been a growth in certificate and on-line programs that emphasize information transmission and preparation for a particular occupation.

The U.S. is tending toward an education that the Chinese have found wanting, at a time when China is seeking to understand liberal education. My hope is not only that the Chinese will embrace liberal education for their country's good, but that we in the United States will reaffirm its value as well.

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