Just before the semester began I traveled to Beijing to deliver a lecture entitled "Why Liberal Education Matters" at the Institute for Humanistic Studies at Peking University. I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was intersession there, and I was told that there might be a dozen faculty and graduate students in attendance. Imagine my surprise when I entered a packed lecture hall. There were more than 200 faculty members and students present, despite the vacation.
In China there is increasing interest in liberal education, while here in the United States there is plenty of pressure on liberal learning from people who want our education system to have a more direct connection to the workplace. They seem to think that an education for "the whole person" is just too soft in this hypercompetitive technology-driven age. These folks want a more routinized, efficient and specialized education to train students for jobs. Yesterday’s jobs, I tend to think.
In the States, I spend a fair amount of time trying to show that this call for more efficient, specialized education is a self-defeating path to conformity and inflexibility – just the kinds of traits that will doom one to irrelevance in the contemporary culture and society. How would this message resonate in China, which has had an educational system that is even more test-driven and hyperspecialized? I decided to take a historical approach, showing how our modern notions of liberal learning emerge from currents of thought from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rorty. Perhaps in the discussions after the talk I would learn about whether there were elements from Chinese traditions that would resonate with our history, and that would have lessons for our contemporary situation.
My translator, the excellent Liu Boyun was ready to leap in every few sentences, a daunting prospect given that I didn’t have a text to read but was going to "talk through" some key ideas in American intellectual history. I structured the talk using the concepts: Liberate, Animate, Cooperate, Instigate/Innovate. Of course, they don’t rhyme in Chinese…
With "Liberate," I talked about Jefferson’s ideas about education that led to the founding the University of Virginia. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and he thought that education would liberate us from what Kant had called "self-imposed immaturity." He was determined that students not have to choose their specific course of learning at the very start of their studies. You should discover what you are going to do through education – not sign up to be trained in a vocation before you know who you might be and what you might be able to accomplish. Sure, there would be mistakes, false roads taken. But, Jefferson wrote to Adams, "ours will be the follies of enthusiasm" and not of bigotry.
I pointed out, as you might expect, the enormous inconsistency in Jefferson’s thinking. He was a slaveholder who tied education to liberation. He was a determined racist who wrote of the importance of allowing young people to fail as they found their enthusiasms – obviously, only some people. Having good ideas about education doesn’t make one immune to scandalous hypocrisy.
With "Animate," I turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that education is setting souls aflame. Emerson saw routinized education as a form of corruption, and he urged his auditors to throw off the shackles of imitation that had become so prominent in colleges and universities. Colleges serve us, he wrote, when they aim not to drill students in rote learning but to help them tap into their creativity so that they can animate their world. I sensed a strong positive response to this from the audience, many of whom want to move away from the regime of test-taking that structures Chinese secondary education (and is increasingly prominent in the United States). But what did they think of another of Emerson’s notions I talked about, that of "aversive thinking," the kind of thinking that cuts against the grain of authority?
With "Cooperate" I talked about three American thinkers associated with pragmatism: William James, Jane Addams and John Dewey. From James I emphasized the notion that "the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action." Liberal education isn’t about studying things that have no immediate use. It is about creating habits of action that grow out of a spirit of broad inquiry. I also talked about his notion of "overcoming blindness" by trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Seeing the world from someone else’s perspective without leaping to judgment was fundamental for James.
That notion of overcoming blindness toward others was also key for Jane Addams, whose idea of "affectionate interpretation" I stressed under the "Cooperate" rubric. Addams allows us to see how "critical thinking" can be overrated in discussions of liberal education. We need to learn how to find what makes things work well and not just how to point out that they don’t live up to expectations. For Addams, compassion, memory and fidelity are central aspects of how understanding should function within a context of community. These notions clearly resonated with the audience, and a few colleagues pointed out that Addams’s thinking in this regard had strong affinities with aspects of Confucian traditions.
My last thinker within the "Cooperate" rubric was John Dewey, and I cited his notion that philosophy "recovers itself … when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men." This is what pragmatic liberal education should do, too: take on the great questions of our time with the methods cultivated by rigorous scholarship and inquiry.
For Dewey, no disciplines were intrinsically part of liberal education. The contextual and conceptual dimensions of robust inquiry made a subject (any subject) part of liberal learning. Furthermore, Dewey insisted that humanistic study would only thrive if it remained connected to "the interests and activities of society." The university should not be a cloister; it should be a laboratory that creates habits of action through inquiry laced with compassion, memory and fidelity.
I brought my talk to a close under the rubric, "Instigate/Innovate." I referred to my teacher Richard Rorty’s remarks on how liberal education at the university level should incite doubt and challenge the prevailing consensus. Rorty played the major role in recent decades in bringing American pragmatism back to the foreground of intellectual life, and he spoke of how higher education helped students practice an aversive thinking that challenged the status quo. That is key, I stressed, to the power of liberal education today: instigating doubt that will in turn spur innovation. We need not just new apps to play with, but new strategies for dealing with fundamental economic, ecological and social problems. Only by creatively challenging the prevailing consensus do we have a chance of addressing these threats to our future.
I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which these remarks were greeted. I’d imagined, so wrongly, that talk about challenging the prevailing consensus would have met with a chilly reception at Peking University. On the contrary, the professors and students in the audience were looking to their own traditions and to those of the West for modes of aversive thinking that would empower them to meet the massive challenges facing their society. In the conversations after the talk, they spoke of an evolving education system that would be less concerned with plugging people into existing niches, and more concerned with teaching the "whole person" in ways that would liberate students’ capacities for finding their own way while making a positive difference in the world. Free speech and free inquiry will be crucial for that evolution.
The ongoing conversations following my lecture at Peking University inspire me to think that thoughtful inquiry might enable us to overcome more of our blindness to one another and to the problems we share. Will pragmatic liberal education instigate skillful and compassionate strategies – here and abroad – for addressing our most pressing challenges? My brief visit to Beijing gave me confidence that it is more than just a "folly of enthusiasm" to think that it will.
A prominent Singaporean academic who has been critical of the country's ruling party was denied tenure for a second time. Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at Nanyang Technological University, has written about the restrictions on the press imposed by the People's Action Party. Although George was denied tenure on the ostensible basis that he did not meet NTU’s standards for teaching and research, one of his external reviewers, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen of Cardiff University, said she found that claim to be “blatantly absurd."
“His record is stellar in both respects, so much so that he could easily get a full professorship elsewhere in my estimation,” said Wahl-Jorgensen. "In addition to being a popular teacher and a well-known public intellectual, his academic profile demonstrates excellence in research and a significant international standing, as well as an extremely high degree of productivity.”
“To put it bluntly I am baffled by this decision and worried about what it means for academic freedom in Singapore,” she said.
As of Monday evening, more than 500 people had signed an online petition attesting to George’s "stellar teaching credentials." George declined to comment on the tenure denial. In a written statement, a NTU spokesman described the tenure review process as being "purely a peer-driven academic exercise" and said the university does not comment on specific cases. (Note: this article has been updated to incorporate NTU's response.)
It's a Wednesday morning in October, and as I stand at the airport gate I hear the dreaded news over the loudspeaker: "Your flight has been canceled." Only in my case, I don't understand the words, because I'm standing in a terminal in Beijing airport trying to get to Hangzhou. The news comes out in muffled Mandarin, which might as well be Martian to me. But a sympathetic British gentleman gives me the translation, and I trudge back to the ticket office to figure out Plan B.
I'm in China for the same reason that many other North American college officials have visited in recent years: to tap into the growing pool of millions of Chinese students looking for a college degree in the United States.
The number of foreign students in the U.S. continues to rise, and China, of course, represents a major source of the trend. In 2010-11, overall enrollment of Chinese students increased by 23 percent over the previous year. Not just large public universities or the prominent private universities, but private Christian colleges such as my own university, Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are seeking to get in the game. One of our peer institutions in the Midwest, Cedarville University, recently attracted attention when it opened up a recruiting office in Beijing.
Much of the motivation to attract international students stems from our mission. Just about every Christian college includes a commitment to globalization somewhere in its mission statement and strategic plan. As the locus of world Christianity continues to shift to the developing world, Christian colleges in the U.S. are recognizing that their future depends on ensuring that their own student body better reflects the diversity of the global church rather than the graduating class of a suburban Indianapolis high school. Some have been doing this for a while; others, like Cornerstone, are seeking to make up for lost time. Tucked firmly in the middle-class Dutch enclave of West Michigan, and with an international student population hovering around 2 percent, we clearly have room for improvement.
Of course, it's not simply about a commitment to globalization. As universities plod their way through the Great Recession and maintain enrollment by raising discount rates, foreign countries represent a potential source for attracting what my CFO loves: "full-pay" students, or at least fuller-pay than the average American student. So as both China's economy and its Christian churches expand, private colleges in the U.S. are increasingly eyeing the Far East as a recruiting region. This is one of those all-too-rare occasions where principle and pragmatism actually play on the same team.
So like many others, I find myself in Beijing. But like the guy at the fishing tournament buzzing off in his bass boat to a secret cove to land the winning catch, I'm heading 500 miles south to Hangzhou, a "medium-sized" city of over 6,000,000 that is home to several major universities and one of the largest evangelical churches in China. A contact of mine, a West Michigan native who teaches English at Hangzhou Normal University, has invited me for a visit and has lined up meetings with professors, pastors, students, and academic administrators. Unfortunately, the canceled flight scrambles my schedule and I don't arrive until midafternoon.
As a typical North American, I'm hoping to go straight to a conference room and get down to business. But this is China, where such things are eased into gently. So I find myself standing in the middle of the track and field stadium of Hangzhou Normal University observing "sports day" on campus. This is essentially a large intramural athletic event, accompanied by marching music seemingly from the days of Chairman Mao, which sparks passionate cheering from the 10,000 or so students. I get there just in time to see my six-foot-tall American host stick out like a sore thumb as the only white person running the 5,000 kilometer race. Unfortunately, his size makes it difficult to hide when he, along with several others, is lapped by the leaders.
This clearly isn't Beijing, and as I walk around the event and am introduced to college students, it seems that my hosts and I are the only Americans in the vicinity. Perhaps I've found an untapped cove after all. My optimism grows when I visit with Reverend Paul, a pastor at Chong Yi church, a thriving mega-church whose imposing cathedral is capped with a 20-foot-high gold cross that is visible from miles away (so much for my notion of the underground church in China). Reverend Paul graduated from a seminary in China, but he seems unfamiliar with the notion of Christian-based undergraduate education. Hence we discuss the possibility of my returning in the future to talk to parents and young people about higher education in U.S. Though Chinese students value higher education primarily for economic reasons, surely Chinese Christians would appreciate a university that develops the soul as well as the mind.
Despite the positive signs, however, it seems that recruiting in China may be more complicated than I thought. In the evening, I have dinner with some local businessmen and the dean of the School of Health Management at Hangzhou Normal. When I distribute literature about Cornerstone, the dean asks, "What's your ranking?" A bit taken aback, I ask which sort of ranking he's referring to. It becomes clear that he has the U.S. News & World Report rankings in mind, which are, for him, the basic source of information about the quality of a university in America. I embark on a rambling discourse about how there are a variety of different rankings out there, that a university's ranking depends largely on the category to which it is assigned, and that as a teaching-centered university we focus more on student engagement and assessments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement. Such remarks seem to make little impression on him.
In fact, the Chinese, I discover, place tremendous weight on college rankings. In Hangzhou, it’s a badge of honor that one of their universities, Zhejiang University, is one of the top-ranked universities in the country. When I'm introduced to professors, I learn not only from what university they received their degree, but how high that university is ranked. Even high schools, I discover, are prioritized by their ranking. As we drive around the city and the local high schools are pointed out to me, they are mentioned along with their ranking among the other universities in the city, as in, "That's number 2" or "That's number 13."
From a first impression, at least, it seems that education in China is beset by the sort of self-reinforcing, "one size fits all" ranking system that has been decried in books such as Academically Adrift and The Innovative University. When I inquire about the basis on which the city's high schools are ranked, my hosts reply, "by how many of their graduates get into the top-ranked universities." As to what criteria determine a top-ranked university, I was given two basic factors — the number of research papers that professors publish and the amount of research grants the faculty bring in.
When I describe different measures of academic quality based on effective teaching in the liberal arts, faculty-student mentoring, challenging students to evaluate and perhaps change their beliefs, and nurturing growth in character as well as intellect, they seem to be new concepts to them. But they’re notions that, I hope, may gain some traction in China in the future.
Later in the evening, as a dean and I walk among the chestnut trees along Hangzhou's West Lake, he shares his thoughts on the future of higher education in China. As much of China has been emerging from poverty and underdevelopment, he observes, university education has been perceived solely in utilitarian terms as a ticket to economic success. As more Chinese become affluent, however, they are finding that there is more to life than economic success -- and thus that perhaps college is not just about making money but about making one a different kind of person.
So perhaps there's a niche in China that universities such as mine can fill. If the Chinese are simply looking for a degree from the U.S. as a path to a good job, then it's difficult to see how we can compete with our larger neighbors down the road in Ann Arbor and East Lansing. But if it's about becoming a different kind of person, then we're playing on our home turf.
A Cornerstone professor who teaches creativity tells me that the first step in the innovative process is not problem-solving but problem-finding. My visit to China may not have given us the key to internationalizing our campus, but it may help us start by defining the problem: Before we can talk to the Chinese about the value of Cornerstone University, we may have to convince them of the value of a liberal arts education in the first place.
Rick Ostrander is provost of Cornerstone University.
The University of Pennsylvania will this week announce major gifts to support a new international strategy for the institution, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Penn plans to create a "world house" in 2015 through which world leaders and Penn faculty members will work to tackle major global problems. Each year, a new problem will be selected. While Penn does not plan to start branch campuses abroad, it is preparing to open a center in China for a range of activities, including faculty research and interviewing applicants.
Oxford Brookes University is becoming the first British university to use U.S.-style grade-point averages, although the institution will also still use the British style of grouping students by broad honors categories, Times Higher Education reported. Officials cited a number of reasons, including the way G.P.A.s allow for ranges, while British honors don't distinguish between those who just made a category and those who just missed it, resulting in "cliff edges" between students.
Another sign of the competition among MOOCs (massive online open courses) for the global student population: The all-British MOOC provider on Monday announced an expansion and British Prime Minister David Cameron promoted the offerings during a trip to India. Cameron said that the expansion of Futurelearn (as the MOOC provider is called) "will mean that Indian students can access some of the best teaching and learning online from their home in Mumbai or Delhi." And a statement from Simon Nelson, CEO of Futurelearn, noted the international competition. "Until now, this market has been dominated by companies based in the U.S., but with 18 U.K. partners, we are determined to provide the smartest and most engaging online learning experiences and revolutionize conventional models of education."
The new members of Futurelearn are the British Library, Queen's University Belfast and the Universities of Bath, Leicester, Nottingham and Reading.
A new paper based on survey data from scientists in 16 countries compares the relative strengths of the United States and other countries in attracting top Ph.D. talent. For obtaining a Ph.D. and selecting a postdoc, American universities continue to be highly regarded and benefit from the prestige of their academic programs and a perception that an American Ph.D. will help the careers of non-American scientist, the study found. But the survey found that Australia, Germany and Switzerland have made gains in recent years, relative to the U.S., in attracting Ph.D. students.
In selecting postdoc locations, non-Americans are discouraged from positions at universities in the U.S. by concerns over working conditions and fringe benefits, relative to opportunities elsewhere. "This finding will hardly come as a surprise to postdocs in the United States who lack paid health insurance coverage -especially for their families- and a formal family leave policy and have few if any specified holidays or vacation days," says the report, released today by the National Bureau of Economic Research. (Abstract available here.)
As a result, countries gaining against the U.S. in competition for top postdocs are Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland.
The authors of the paper are Paula Stephan of Georgia State University, Chiara Franzoni of Politecnico di Milano and Giuseppe Scellato of Politecnico di Torino.