Going Global, Going Liberal Arts

As some American colleges rethink how their programs should encourage students to gain international perspectives, a Chinese university embraces liberal education.
January 28, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO -- Everyone at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities seems to favor globalization as a goal for higher education -- not much of a surprise given the meeting theme of "Global Positioning." But some here argued that it is time to rethink just what globalization means -- in many cases making it more local in focus (and without seeing local and global as opposites). And in a sign of how all globalization may involve local contexts, officials from a Chinese university made a presentation about how it is embracing a global outlook by turning to the liberal arts.

Several of the presentations about American colleges here focused on ways to move past superficial ideas about globalization, such as the view that offering a few foreign languages, a study abroad program, or an international relations program will by itself create a global perspective for students. Even seemingly intense global experiences, such as study abroad, don't necessarily do the trick, speakers said.

"You can be located bodily in another country and not really be there," said Natalie Gummer, associate professor of religious studies at Beloit College. Too many students create "American student culture bubbles" abroad and don't really connect with the countries where they are studying.

Beloit has started a "Cities in Transition" program in which specific exercises are designed so that students break out of those bubbles and are forced to interact -- soon after arriving in a new country -- with the local population. For instance, students are assigned to individually go around the city to any place people gather and to talk to them about places in the city that define its past, present and future. Then students visit those places, and talk and write about the ideas gleaned from the discussions.

Students in Kaifeng, China, are almost always told about the glories of the city in the Sung Dynasty and pointed to a park that is seen as reflecting that period -- leading to a series of discussions about what it means to be part of a city that views its best days as past.

Gummer said that Beloit is now trying to apply the lessons on its campus in Wisconsin, by using the same approach to introduce new students to the small Wisconsin city that is the college's home and shares its name. "The same sort of bubble exists for many students in the Beloit community," she said.

At Whitman College, the goal of recent efforts to globalize the curriculum was to do so without a new program that "would only serve a few dozen majors," said Bruce Magnusson, director of the college's Global Studies Initiative.

The college has created a new seminar for faculty members to come together on a weekly basis to focus on a global theme. The professors get release time in return for which they are expected to create cross-disciplinary team-taught courses related to the seminars. New courses that have been created as a result include a re-entry seminar for students coming back from study abroad, and a course on "art and place." This approach is intended to create "ripple effects" throughout the college, rather than focusing on a single department, Magnusson said.

Macalester College is an institution that has long taken pride in its international perspective. As Kathleen M. Murray, the provost, explained, the college has had an international studies program since 1949, has been flying the United Nations flag since 1950, and draws 11 percent of its student body from outside the United States (a high figure for an undergraduate institution).

But even at such an institution, Murray said, it is essential to add efforts to understand and reinvigorate discussion of global issues. One recent approach has been the creation of "pathways" courses that link several general education programs on international themes such as global health and human rights. These courses are not majors or minors; rather they aim to provide more linkages among general education courses. And public health, Murray said, is a key way to involve students and faculty in the physical and biological sciences in international issues.

In these and other presentations, speakers talked about the educational value of a global background, but also repeatedly linked these approaches to practical goals. Graduates of colleges who have a better understanding of foreign cultures and the world beyond their borders will be needed by business, governments and other employers -- and will be better positioned for the economy of the decades ahead.

Studying Latin and Greek in China

The most idealistic defense of global perspectives -- for non-economic reasons -- came Thursday from Yang Gan, dean of liberal arts at China's Sun Yat-sen University. While Chinese universities are discussed in the United States as science and engineering-focused, narrowly so, Sun Yat-sen University is part of a growing movement in China to promote general education -- which includes global (meaning Western) philosophy and culture.

Boya College at Sun Yat-sen is a liberal arts institution at which an intense general education sequence in the first two years includes elements of Chinese culture (classical literature, calligraphy, history) and also considerable study of Western civilization, with every student taking not only English, but also Latin, Greek, and courses focused on specific authors (Homer, Herodotus, Dante) and periods (such as ancient Hebrew civilization). Courses also focus on such topics as political philosophy and musicology.

All classes are taught in small groups, with students required to participate, to read individually and respond to great works, and to write extensively. Beyond writing requirements for class, each student must write one 5,000-word essay each month on any topic not related to a course.

Gan said that the program -- along with summer institutes along the same lines appearing at other universities -- reflects a desire to break out of the "overly specialist training" that has dominated Chinese universities. "What has been lacking" in Chinese universities, he said, "has been the humanities."

These programs, he said, are needed because they are part of being a well-educated person. “I don’t believe general education can help a worker find a better job,” he said. "The danger in today's global capitalist age is that money is seen as the highest value, but there is other value -- in thinking -- that has much higher value than money, and that is the purpose of general education."

Kenyon S. Chan, the chancellor of the University of Washington at Bothell, introduced Gan by saying that it was time for Americans to broaden their conception of what is going on in Chinese higher education. Programs like the one at Sun Yat-sen "signal a desire to be a creative and innovative force in the world" -- and to provide the kind of higher education that Americans have assumed they were unique in offering.

Those who go to Chinese universities today, Chan said, will see that "it's not just a bunch of nerds over there doing science and technology."


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