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Liberal arts education becoming more popular internationally

in Around Higher Education/News by

In a Guardian article published on October 8th titled “Could Liberal Arts Colleges become America’s Finest Exports?,” author Helen Lock repeatedly references Swarthmore, citing it as a ‘classic example’ of a small, campus-based, liberal arts college in the United States.

Lock argues that the liberal arts model is building an international appeal, due to “its focus on both teaching and research, holistic admissions processes and flexibility for students,” she writes. King’s College London, Exeter University and Winchester University in England, as well as NYU in Abu Dhabi, UAE, and Yale-NUS in Singapore have all launched liberal art programs recently.

Dean of Admissions Jim Bock explains this phenomenon by alluding to the soft skills, such as critical thinking abilities and a breadth of knowledge, that a liberal arts education provides.

“This type of education can make you nimble in the job market,” Bock said. “We did a survey of our alumni about what they were doing now. 95% said they felt their education was relevant to what they did, but only 25% were doing something directly linked to their major.”

Bock also states that the percentage of international students of Swarthmore College’s student body, currently at 13%, is on the rise. Not only are liberal art institutions catching on abroad, but it seems that the number of international students that liberal art institutions in the States attract is increasing simultaneously. Aldemaro Romero of The Intelligencer wrote an article on October 26 titled “Liberal Arts Education Gaining Recognition,” which asserts that many liberal arts colleges pride themselves on the large proportion of international students they have.

“Another characteristic of liberal arts colleges is that because they want to offer their traditional students with more experiences in terms of diversity, these institutions actively recruit minorities,” Romero wrote.

Even countries that have traditionally had regimented, rote learning style schooling are embracing the liberal arts model. Carol Christ, publishing through Acenet, references a survey that shows employers in those countries are frustrated by the inflexibility of workers, and that they want to see education focusing more on creativity and problem solving.

“Facing the same pressures of internationalization and innovation that have generated increased scrutiny of educational styles in the United States, universities in Asia are adapting liberal arts education as an economic necessity,” Christ said.

Although it is clear that a liberal arts education could be a beneficial alternative for some students in and outside of the States, its integration may be met with some resistance.

For example, many Asian countries traditionally perceive professional or technical degrees as more practical than broader educations. Damien Ding ’18 notes that this disregard for the liberal arts is entrenched even in the most elite institution in Singapore.

“Singapore’s university system places a disproportionate amount of emphasis on professional schools such as medicine, law, business, [and] engineering. This causes the schools that teach humanities and social sciences to be rather low on the prestige ladder. For students who are passionate and interested in those topics, Yale-NUS, with the prestige of the Yale tag, gives them a local alternative to pursue those areas of studies without being associated with failure,” Ding said.

Katherine Kwok ’18 observes that this stigma attached to a liberal arts education prevails in Hong Kong as well.

“I think a lot of my relatives were a little hesitant to congratulate me for getting into college when I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to study,” Kwok said.

Additionally, adopting new forms of higher education in a country would have to come about concurrently with changes in educational institutions that precede it, such that the transition into university could be fluid. Kwok went to a high school designed for American expats, but acknowledges that if she had been from a local school, it would’ve taken her longer to adjust to the style of learning and general social environment of Swarthmore College.

There are also many barriers to assimilating a liberal arts education abroad due to country-specific reasons. Misha Khan ’19, a student from Lahore, Pakistan, thinks that the more radical Muslims in Pakistan could oppose the liberal arts model due to its Western origin, and because it could encourage students to challenge long-held Pakistani values and beliefs.

“Recently, there was an issue in Pakistan where the head of a school was taken to court for instituting a change which introduced comparative religion in her school as a subject. Using this as precedent, I can be sure that there would be at least some protest from people on the pretext of certain elements of this curriculum encouraging people to ‘oppose Islam,’” Khan said.

This resistance from conservatives in Pakistan could explain why there is in Pakistan, according to Khan, “a prevalent realization about the benefits of having a liberal arts education, but very little to show for it.” There have been proposals to start a liberal arts style curriculum in one of the best existing universities in Pakistan, LUMS. And in 2014, a new Liberal Arts and Sciences University was set up in Karachi, in collaboration with Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon. Still, there are currently only three liberal arts colleges and 174 universities in Pakistan.

In China, due to the fact that the Ministry of Education regulates most educational institutions, it may take China longer than other countries to embrace a counter model to its current education system, Li Tian ’18 explained.

“The regulation is necessary for the large amount of institutions and the pressure to prepare students well for the work forces upon graduation. The current Chinese university model is only developed since 30 years ago after the Culture revolution. It is still under developing itself.”

Elsewhere, the problem is not bureaucracy but funding. Maxine Annoh ’18 from Ghana thinks that there is a large financial barrier inhibiting the flourishing of liberal arts institutions in her country, despite the recent founding of a liberal arts college by Patrick Awuah ‘89, who was honored in October as a MacArthur Fellow for his work.

“Liberal arts education is expensive because you can’t just let anyone teach a liberal arts education. There are certain facilities that are required, or that complete a liberal arts education experience, and a lot of public schools cannot afford this,” Annoh said.

There is a multitude of cultural and logistical barriers associated with changing an education system, but with the increase in global awareness and understanding of the liberal arts model, it seems that its international assimilation will come with time.

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