Latest News

The enduring virtues of the liberal arts.

The liberal arts-based model of higher education has largely remained at
the margins of the higher education marketplace across Southeast Asia and Asia
Pacific. While there are some highly notable liberal arts-based colleges and
universities across Asia, and the launch of the Yale-NUS initiative in
Singapore in 2011 notwithstanding, unfortunately, liberal arts institutions
have largely not proliferated the broader higher education landscape across
these regions.

Instead, the phenomenal expansion in recent years of the higher
education marketplace in Asia has been overwhelmingly marked by
professionally-based career preparation, as well as vocation-related
institutions and programmes.

The liberal arts approach emphasises a distinct culture of learning, a
holistic vision of education tailored to foster a passion for lifelong
learning. It cultivates a rich understanding of the depth and breadth of
knowledge through immersion in the arts, humanities, natural, and social
sciences, while emphasizing “higher order thinking skills” – intellectual
independence, imagination, creative problem-solving abilities, analytical and
critical thinking, superior communication skills, and knowledge creation.

Colleges and universities adhering to this ethos have been deeply
invested in high-impact teaching. Interwoven with this holistic vision of
education, the liberal arts engender civically engaged and conscientious
citizens. Indeed, the liberal arts tradition has traditionally been viewed as
critical preparation for responsible citizenship in society.

An Asian Development Bank report on higher education noted that as
“demand for expanded higher education systems is increasing, so is concern
about the quality and relevance of the education provided.” Even as both public
and private sectors of higher education in many Asian countries have made great
strides “in expanding access, diversifying curricular, and experimenting with
new instructional delivery systems,” the report also notes the continued need
to improve “the relevance of [the] curriculum and instruction.”

In this context, it is especially critical that we not lose sight of the
transformative qualities and virtues of a well-rounded and student-centred
liberal arts education for economic and social development. There are three key
– often overlooked – considerations in today’s higher education marketplace
that must be recognized, to better appreciate the continued need for a liberal
arts-based education.

A student-centred education in the 21st century is not
only a critical ingredient – but arguably an increasingly indispensable one –
to foster engaged, ethical, conscientious, caring and intellectually mature
citizens who see themselves as part of a larger and meaningful body politic.

This is the ultimate treasure of a liberal arts-based education. The
liberal arts model is arguably more imperative to the vitality and vigour of building
and nurturing democratic institutions now than ever before.

With its central commitment to the nourishment of the intellect and the
cultivation of finer human values, a superior liberal arts-based education is,
in essence, the incubator of civic culture, civic engagement, a genuine sense
of citizenship, and a commitment to the pursuit of social justice; all critical
elements of a thriving democratic society.

Therefore, a liberal arts-based education is perhaps more relevant and
necessary in the coming decades, when much of the civic ethos and the commons
in several societies across Southeast Asia and the Pacific become increasingly
undermined by emboldened kleptocracies. And sadly, sometimes compounded by
broader public indifference and apathy.

Second, and rather ironically, it seems that amidst the increased
emphasis on career-oriented, vocation-based education, there is, in fact,
evidence of an acutely compelling rationale for the continued importance (and
the practical benefit) of the liberal arts-based education.

In fluid and ever-changing regional and global socio-economic
conditions, most experts agree that college graduates can expect several
transformative changes in their work culture and will change careers several times during their working life
. Employment trends suggest that this phenomenon
has already become a widespread reality in the US and Europe, and will increasingly
become the norm across a number of middle-income Asian countries.

In such dynamic career-related conditions, which are expected to be more the
norm than the exception in the foreseeable future, the flexibility and
adaptability of graduates 
especially in emerging economies become all
the more a premium. Arguably, such qualities are best fostered in the guiding
ethos of an excellent, well-rounded liberal arts education; not the kind of
education that is minimalist and one-dimensional, but one that cultivates in
students – in professional programmes or otherwise – an ability to confront new
frontiers, new realities, to have faith in their honed-in analytical and
critical thinking skills, and to be able to adapt to emergent challenges and
unanticipated opportunities.

Frankly, much conventional wisdom about the liberal arts’ demise
notwithstanding, the assessments about foreseeable economic and systemic
realities associated with working life cycles of college graduates present
policymakers and students alike with a potent (and practical) rationale for
investing in a well-rounded liberal arts education that equips graduates not
for that first job, but instead to confront their impending lifetime of
professional challenges and being able to reinvent themselves, as they will no
doubt have to do at different stages of their working life.

Third, the intrinsic value of a well-rounded and student-centred liberal
education, where the development of the whole individual is
paramount, remains a compelling and enduring factor for why the liberal arts
model must continue to matter.

When we nourish the spirit, contemplate issues of morality, service,
conscience, and delve in the study of history, the fine arts and languages,
learn practical skills, while – among other things – also fine-tune our grasp
of the scientific process of discovery, we are, very simply, enlightened.

We derive a fuller appreciation of the self, a deeper grasp of our
humanity (and that of others).

Along these lines, Richard
, a former president of Hobart
and William Smith Colleges
, has noted that the liberal arts
play a central role in “meaning-making,” and in “the innate human need for

In addition, I will note that it is ironic indeed that precisely during
these years, when many skeptics have been questioning the continued relevance
of a liberal arts-oriented education, we have been subjected to a rather
curious (or perhaps not) precipitous trend toward student-centered,
interactive, nimble, and intensive educational experience that has historically
been the trademark of institutions committed to the liberal arts tradition.

Irrespective of their relative effectiveness in trying to capture some
of the energy and ethos of a liberal arts-based education, which values
personalized attention and excellent teaching, these efforts represent an
unambiguous acknowledgement of the virtues of a student-centred education.
Indeed, it is a revealing and refreshing commentary (and reminder) about
everything that is right and enduring about the liberal arts.

In a speech to honour Robert Frost at Amherst College in
1963, President John Kennedy noted:
“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist
free to follow his vision …”

In this vein, I submit that the same premise applies to the liberal arts
in general. Indeed, the cultures, ideas and deep traditions of Southeast Asia
and the Pacific can also continue to be nourished and advanced through enabling
educators and the liberal arts alike to be innovative and transformational.

The strengths and virtues of the liberal arts-based education are ultimately
the bedrock of a vibrant and democratic society. Ironically, in an age of
globalization, we also see intense and deeply embedded parochialism, identity
politics, and social fragmentation (and this is not just endemic in a number of
Asian societies). Higher education systems need to be reinvigorated to also be
spaces for some more enlightened and open discourse to help overcome such
destabilizing forces.

In this regard, the
defining pillars of an excellent liberal arts-based education is critical to enabling
social and economic advancement.


Add to myStore

Posted on : Jan 09, 2018