Hong Kong businessman Po Chung might seem to be an unlikely advocate for the virtues of a U.S.-style liberal education. Co-founder of the Asia Pacific branch of shipping giant DHL, he’s 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 business community advocates for adding a big dose of humanities and social sciences to the curriculum of Hong Kong’s universities.
Chung and other backers of the 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 believe 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 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. Indeed, 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.
Paradoxically, though, even as Hong Kong and some other Asian countries are embracing everything from art history to sociology as necessary components of undergraduate coursework, the United States is moving in the opposite direction.
This may be no surprise. With tuition high and student debt mounting, American students and parents are increasingly worried about the prospect of post-graduation unemployment or underemployment. This mixture of anxieties is leading many Americans to think of higher education in increasingly utilitarian terms. By this measure, Near Eastern Studies inevitably falls short when compared to practical coursework in computer science.
But Hong Kongers certainly care about commercial imperatives, too. So why the disconnect between liberal-arts-hungry East and liberal-arts-wary West? 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.
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 2012 South China Morning Post op-ed as the initiative was getting off the ground. Throw in the “creative communities of innovation” built by liberal arts, he argued, and the end result is decidedly 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 and, unfortunately, well-founded 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.
How it works
When Hong Kong’s education reforms went into effect in the fall of 2012, the immediate practical changes were significant. 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 the 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. Universities were given considerable autonomy over how they put the changes into action, and exactly how much of the total undergraduate curriculum the new general education classes would make up.
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,” an arrangement that one professor likened to the Harvard model of many course options within a loose disciplinary framework. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, however, required some specific classes - a modest core curriculum requirement akin to the University of Chicago’s Great Books sequence. The common core, comprising both existing and brand-new classes, became a significant portion of the curriculum at some universities. It makes up close to one-third of undergraduate coursework at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, for example.
The chance to take classes in a wide range of fields holds enormous appeal for students like Sivaraam “Shiv” Muthukumar, a third-year HKUST undergraduate studying mechanical engineering and business management. In an interview on campus, he sounds like a poster child for the new approach. “I do not know what I’m going to do after university, but I do know what I want to become,” he 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, both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy, was a complicated endeavor. Chung himself put up a matching donation of $1 million—supplemented by government and university funds—to bring in a group of twenty-four American Fulbright scholars in 2008 to help with the transition. The rationale was that the Fulbrights, many of them faculty members 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. They also were charged with a crucial part of the plan: working with their Hong Kong colleagues not just on curriculum but on pedagogy.
A pragmatic rationale
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, the instrumental rationale is widespread, according to others who have participated in Hong Kong’s general education reform. “Hong Kong only has human resources,” says Glenn Shive, an expatriate 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. Educating students holistically to become well-rounded citizens isn’t a compelling argument in Hong Kong—“it’s all about talent,” he says in an interview at a Hong Kong restaurant.
Universities haven’t been meeting the demands of the job market, Shive adds, too often producing memorizers with narrow, career-focused training, rather than the entrepreneurial problem solvers the business sector wants. By contrast, he says, 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.
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, says 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 says in an interview, 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.”
A work in progress
Recent interviews with administrators, faculty, and students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the University of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) suggest that, 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: curriculum that broadens students’ intellectual horizons and interactive teaching methods that give them the tools to become rigorous and creative thinkers.
Measuring student learning outcomes isn’t easy because the decentralized nature of the reform means that there isn’t a common theme to curriculum offerings (the same is true in the United States, of course). They are vast and varied, both within and across universities. 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.”
Some faculty and students also worry about the practical difficulties that can thwart efforts to move away from Confucian methods of teaching. Universities usually aim to combine lectures with small discussion-based tutorials, for example. But financial constraints sometimes mean that classes are too large for meaningful interaction between professors and students.
What’s more, faculty aren’t 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 are used to listening to lectures, taking notes, and regurgitating the answers they think professors want on exams. “They loosen up toward the middle of the term,” says one CUHK instructor. Still, when students are taking common core classes only because they have to, notes a music professor at HKUST, it isn’t easy to inspire them to participate actively.
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 say they like the program in principle, but find that, in practice, the exam-driven, non-interactive structure of some general ed courses doesn’t much differ from their other college classes. Still, the new system is working for some undergraduates, who call the new approach eye-opening.
Hong Kong is far from alone in its new embrace of liberal education. In recent years, a growing numbers of nations outside the United States have launched some form of liberal arts or general education programs in their colleges and universities. A research initiative known as the Global Liberal Education Inventory catalogues 183 non-US liberal education programs. It demonstrates particularly strong interest in Asia, where a plurality of programs—37 percent—are located, mostly in China, India, and Japan. Europe comes a close second, with 32 percent of non-U.S. liberal arts programs.
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 of these programs remains very 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 fifteen 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,” wrote Richard Levin, then president of Yale, in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article, “The Rise of Asian Universities.” While creating world-class research institutions is certainly these nations’ top priority, they have also recognized that, as Levin writes, “it takes more than research capacity alone for a nation to develop economically.”
Moving away from rote learning, cultivating critical thinking, exposing students to a range of academic disciplines, fostering creativity, teaching students to challenge professors—all these educational goals, says Levin, now CEO of Coursera, the pioneering massive open online course (MOOC) provider, have made the American model of undergraduate education increasingly attractive to Asian leaders. Rather than mastering a narrow body of knowledge, he writes, “[s]tudents 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.”
The U.S. experience: dwindling interest
Ironically, even as countries in Asia and around the world embrace the liberal arts to a growing extent (albeit still modest as a share of all postsecondary education), parents, employers, and policymakers in the United States increasingly are questioning the value of broad-based liberal education. Many suggest that in an uncertain economy students will be better served by career-oriented education than by studying subjects like art history. The growing availability of statistics showing vastly different starting salaries for chemical engineers and philosophers only serves to cement the point.
It may be, as Postiglione of the University of Hong Kong suggests, that U.S. higher education is simply in the midst of a pendulum swing from a relatively large emphasis on liberal arts training in the second half of the twentieth century back toward job-related concerns. This course correction follows an era in which the economy has thrived and liberal arts-driven critical thinking has become commonplace among leaders in government, business, education, and the media. Now, according to this analysis, the problem facing American graduates in a much tighter economy is not that they are products of rote learning and possess insufficient creativity, but, rather, that they have too little discipline and too few useful specialized skills.
Still, the trend infuriates traditionalists such as Cecilia Gaposchkin, a history professor at Dartmouth College. “Information is fairly easy to acquire. And much of the information acquired in 2015 will be obsolete by 2020,” she wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (expressing a sentiment heard daily in Asia): “What is valuable is not the content of a major, but rather the ability to think with and through that information.”
In a sense, her view is reflected in the general education requirements, and associated teaching of broad academic skills, that remain standard at U.S. universities. However, the institution most closely associated with broad-based undergraduate education, the distinctively American liberal arts college, appears to be an endangered species. Many of these colleges, as economist David Breneman found in a 1990 study, have evolved into career-oriented “professional colleges,” in which majors such as nursing and business have become more common than history or chemistry. Breneman, the former president of Kalamazoo College, identified 540 undergraduate-focused American colleges, of which just 212 were focused significantly on liberal arts fields. The decline since then has been dramatic, according to a 2012 follow-up analysis by different researchers, which found that just 130 liberal arts-oriented colleges remain.
The research case for economic benefits
In economic terms, it is, of course, far too soon to evaluate the success of Hong Kong’s liberal arts programs. And what research does exist in the United States remains limited. 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).
However, in an effort to counter the view that liberal arts majors do little to prepare students for career success, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released a study in 2014 attempting to show that long-term career paths for liberal arts graduates, in fact, lead in very productive directions. Relying on Census data, and working with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, the report found that by their peak earning years, from ages fifty-six to sixty, workers who had undergraduate majors in the humanities or social sciences earned slightly more annually—$2000—than those with professional or pre-professional majors such as nursing or business. Unsurprisingly, 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 annual earnings increases of close to $20,000.
A very different way of looking at the economic impact of liberal education is to analyze entire institutions rather than specific majors. One prominent advocate of the liberal arts approach examined how the curriculum and mode of learning offered at liberal arts colleges helps graduates contribute to the scientific research that is vital to economic growth. Thomas R. Cech, a distinguished chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1989, probed the scientific prowess of U.S. liberal arts college graduates in a 1999 article in Daedalus. Despite the association of these institutions with subjects like history, literature, and psychology, Cech’s analysis found that, when adjusted for the size of each college’s student population, liberal arts colleges are “remarkably successful” at launching future science PhDs. In a ranking of future science PhDs per 100 students enrolled, elite colleges such as Swarthmore, Carleton, and Reed placed just below Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd, and just above the University of Chicago, Rice, and Princeton (all of which have their own general education requirements).
Cech attributed these science strengths to personalized education in classrooms and labs, and to the non-science classes that promote “the development of critical thinking skills and facility with written and oral communication.” (He notes that Harold Varmus, then-director of the National Institutes of Health, was an English major at Amherst.) Although Cech makes no explicitly economic claims about his findings, it doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that the disproportionate contributions liberal arts colleges make to molding the nation’s scientists do much to improve the wealth of the nation.
Many other claims have been made about the ways in which liberal arts graduates can do a lot more than discuss Plato around a seminar table. The habits of mind developed by an education marked by close study of texts, debating professors and fellow students, and acquiring knowledge about a broad range of subjects are just what is needed to create successful entrepreneurs, argued Leo Higdon, Jr., then-president of the College of Charleston, in a 2005 article. From learning to communicate effectively and challenging conventional thinking to developing “the ability to act from a sound basis of personal values, strong ethics, and a clear knowledge of oneself,” liberal arts grads develop the key skills that entrepreneurs need, he maintained.
In a sense, all these efforts to emphasize the economic value of the liberal arts could be viewed as a capitulation to the chorus of pragmatic adult voices asking students, “what are you going to do with that?” Traditionally, general education promoters have certainly not cited career benefits to make their case, instead emphasizing the importance of learning for its own sake, of understanding, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “the best that has been thought and said.” But taking this kind of knowledge to the marketplace doesn’t necessarily involve any fatal compromises. Particularly in economic boom times, liberal arts truth-seeking need not be inimical to the pursuit of success in the business and professional world.
Conclusion: the politics of liberal arts
Is a Renaissance man or woman more likely than a garden variety lawyer or engineer to be a more rigorous, creative thinker of the kind entrepreneurial economies need? In Hong Kong, Po Chung and his many fellow travelers certainly think so. A more, though more elusive, outcome of the liberal arts reform could go beyond fostering economic growth to equip students with the sharpened critical thinking skills needed to take on authoritarian regimes. It is noteworthy that when Chung and others brought in Fulbright scholars to consult on the general education reform, newspapers on the mainland ran articles suggesting that this was evidence of undesirable Western influences in Hong Kong’s higher education system.
This perception of liberal arts as a threat is no accident. In his South China Morning News article, Chung concluded by suggesting that liberal arts can 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.”
Will this happen? There’s certainly reason for pessimism, given Beijing’s allergy to free thought. As former Fulbright scholar Jerry Gaff notes, Chung’s article was published before the student-led Occupy Central movement. The Umbrella Revolution’s seventy-nine days of street protests ended without any shift in the mainland government’s plan to establish de facto Community Party control over Hong Kong’s electoral process. More recently, 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 not stopped demonstrating. Indeed, Beijing’s crackdown might well have the unintended consequence of fueling the democracy movement.
It would probably be overreaching at this early stage to draw a direct causal link between the new academic liberal arts era and students’ passionate push for political freedom. But if, as it takes root, liberal arts education in Hong Kong and beyond can nurture intellectual rigor, economic growth, and a hunger for liberty, it will have more than proved its value.
About the Author
Ben Wildavsky is director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and policy professor at the University at Albany. His research focuses on the globalization of universities and the push for innovation in U.S. postsecondary education. A former senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, he is the author of the award-winning book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (2010). His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the Atlantic, and many other publications. Wildavsky graduated from Yale University (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude).