The Liberal Arts, Abroad

Outposts of liberal learning are popping up worldwide, often based on adaptations of an American model.
February 16, 2009

One cannot resist Wikipedia’s peculiar charms on this one. Let us refer to its entry on the “liberal arts.”

“Although the genesis for what is known today as the liberal arts college began in Europe ... the term is commonly associated with liberal arts colleges in the United States. Liberal arts colleges are found in countries all over the world as well. [citation needed]”

“Citation needed.” Until recently there wouldn't have been much to cite for liberal arts colleges outside the United States. In most of the world, higher education can be found in large public universities and in technical training programs. Over the last 10 to 15 years, however, plenty of international examples of liberal learning have emerged: Ashesi University, in Ghana, for instance, or the Smolny College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, in Russia. Soon the list will include New York University’s planned liberal arts college in Abu Dhabi, and the Asian University for Women, which is being established in Bangladesh. There is also Quest University Canada, in Squamish, British Columbia, which states on its Web site, “Private liberal arts and sciences education is a comparatively new concept in the Canadian post-secondary field. Large, research-based, public universities are the norm.”

“I think there’s a movement out there,” said Susan H. Gillespie, vice president for special global initiatives and founder and director of the Institute for International Liberal Education at Bard College. “There are a lot of initiatives that are popping up here and here. I think that so far there is a lack of coordination and a lack of awareness largely that this is happening.”

The import and adaptation of American-style liberal arts education does in fact seem to be proliferating in pockets worldwide, in areas where more professional-oriented education has been the prevailing norm. There are a number of models, including that of the American university establishing a branch campus abroad. “But these are often more modest initiatives and are often started by people who had the benefit of liberal education and want to establish it in their own countries,” Gillespie said.

“It’s not just the spread of an American-style education. It’s something I think specific about the nature of liberal arts education, its ideology if you will, which I think people perceive – and I think correctly so – to be allied with democratization. Because it teaches tolerance, because it teaches critical thinking, which is nothing other than an ability… to understand diverse points of view.”

Bard first got involved with promoting liberal education internationally in 1989, when it initiated a partnership with Smolny College, a liberal arts institution where students earn dual degrees from Bard and St. Petersburg State University, the latter degree a B.A. in arts and humanities. Bard has been involved with an interdisciplinary human rights program in South Africa. And it just announced plans for another partnership with Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution in Jerusalem. Along other joint initiatives, the Al-Quds/Bard Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences is slated to open this fall with 50 to 60 students, growing eventually to 400.

The planned collaboration with Al-Quds also will involve a joint master of arts in teaching degree program and the development of the Al-Quds Bard Model School for students in grades 5-12. The planned curriculum for the Honors College for Liberal Arts and Sciences features a pre-matriculation program in language and thinking, a first-year seminar, and the completion of a senior project. Most courses will be taught in English.

"We will work hand in hand not only at putting together a liberal arts program that will be viewed as a model of excellence at the college level; equally significantly, we will at the same time try to reach out to the school system, thus trying to influence our national educational philosophy even at the preparatory level," Sari Nusseibeh, Al-Quds' president, said in a statement.

Colleges in Their Contexts

“These are praiseworthy efforts. But the first thing that has to be said is that the liberal arts model as we understand it in this country is an American creation,” said John Churchill, secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which several years ago co-sponsored a conference on Liberal Arts Education in America and the World. “It has roots in the Oxford tutorial system and yet it is so much a part of the cultural fabric of this country. There are all sorts of linguistic and conceptual hurdles that have to be crossed before you can even begin asking the right questions about whether it’s viable or feasible or appropriate in another cultural context.”

What are the right questions? That, too, varies.

“I spent some time in China in the summer of 2007 and gave talks trying to explain and expound on the American conception of liberal education to Chinese audiences,” Churchill said. “So much of what we say about liberal education in the United States has to do with preparation for citizenship in a participatory democracy, with the readiness to apply critical thinking to all claims, and the emphasis on individual development... and so forth. A moment’s reflection will show the difficulty of translating those distinctively American values into a Chinese cultural context. That’s not to say it’s not valuable. It’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just got to be very carefully thought through.”

When addressing the subject in Arabic, Dale Eickelman, a professor of anthropology and humans relations at Dartmouth College, starts with the term “critical thinking,” as opposed to “liberal arts" -- which is “really a culture-bound term," he said.

“We’re of course saturated with the term but it’s not a term that rolls off the tongue of 18-to-23-year-olds even here,” said Eickelman, who is involved with Dartmouth’s close partnership with American University of Kuwait. “To assume that there is instant recognition of what the liberal arts are in Kuwait, just as in the United States, I find, is asking too much. [Whereas with the term] critical thinking, at least one pauses to reflect and then one says, ‘Critical thinking about what?’ ”

AU Kuwait was established in 2003 and accredited by Kuwait's Council for Private Universities in 2006. "We are, we're proud to say, the first liberal arts college in Kuwait. That is part of our mission and our challenge,” said Marina Tolmacheva, the president. A challenge because, she explained, "Professionalization of education is a large factor, especially when new institutions are created. There is a temptation to narrow it down.”

At AUK, students are required to complete 45 general education credits, with the stated learning outcomes being critical thinking, effective communication, innovative leadership, aesthetic appreciation, cultural awareness, ethical standards and technological literacy. There's a range of majors; as a couple of examples, students can get a B.A. in English language and literature, perhaps, or economics, a B.S. in computer science, or a B.B.A. in accounting.

When asked about academic freedom, Tolmacheva described AU Kuwait as “most comparable to American institutions with religious affiliation,” in that it has to work within certain cultural sensitivities, Islam being the dominant cultural influence. “As a Kuwaiti institution, we have to operate according to the laws of Kuwait and offer an opportunity for our students to have access to the liberal arts tradition while, at the same time, adapting to Islamic cultures and values," Tolmacheva said.

Perhaps most notably, the college’s academic catalog notes that Kuwaiti law holds that a private college shall “operate its buildings to ensure gender segregation in all departments, disciplines and student activities."

Bologna and the Liberal Arts

Europe has also been a site of innovation, spurred in part by the Bologna Process, a series of reforms intended to generate comparable degrees at the bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. levels, and thereby encourage mobility across a 46-country European Higher Education Area.

“There are a number of different European models that are emerging,” said Laurent Boetsch, a professor of romance languages at Washington and Lee University and president emeritus of the European College of Liberal Arts, in Berlin. Boetsch is also involved with a new consortium, the European Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences (ECOLAS), which "aims to become the leading source of expertise and experience in the realization of planning, implementation, and evaluation of programmes which adhere to the values of liberal learning."

Boetsch said a long-term goal of the ECOLAS consortium will be to develop a quality assurance system for liberal arts programs in Europe.

“I think what people are trying to do is not necessarily emulate the typical American liberal arts model," Boetsch said. "I think what they’re looking for is integration of a liberal arts attitude, let’s put it that way, into this first-cycle degree [the bachelor's]. So interdisciplinarity is important, breadth is important. Those are the kinds of things they’ve been kind of overlooking within the normal, very narrow disciplinary cycles that are now getting some attention.”

“I think there is an increase in interest,” Boetsch said. But, he added, “I don’t know how much of it is interest that’s been there but has been disconnected.”

Boetsch cited a number of examples of liberal learning in Europe, including its integration into some of the larger research universities that predominate: He mentioned the Artes Liberales program at the University of Warsaw, for instance, and Gotland University, in Sweden, which, per its Web site, this year "started its transformation into becoming the first Liberal Arts Education College in Sweden.”

There are also free-standing examples, like the European College of Liberal Arts, in Berlin, which is about to launch a B.A. in Value Studies, and the European Humanities University, founded in 1992, which now operates as a Belarusian university in exile, in Vilnius, Lithuania. And as for branch campuses, McDaniel College, in Maryland, has had one in Budapest since 1994. Like many liberal arts institutions abroad, this one has an international student body -- about 100 students from 20 countries, said Rose Falkner, director of international and off-campus study. She added that a total of 54 McDaniel students, plus five from other campuses, are studying abroad at the Budapest campus this academic year.

Living and Learning in Abu Dhabi

Arguably the most ambitious attempt at a branch campus yet is underway in the United Arab Emirates. While there are also plans for graduate programs, NYU Abu Dhabi is to be, over time, "a full-scale liberal arts college" of more than 2,000 students.

In developing the core curriculum – the college plans to accept its first class of students in 2010 – NYU has identified four broad content areas in which students will have to take two courses each: Pathways of World Literature, Structures of Thought and Society, Ideas and Methods of Science, and Art, Invention and Technology. “They’re not foundations for the major,” explained Mariët Westermann, vice chancellor for regional campus development at NYU. “They open up a whole field of thought and action, you could say, to students.”

Westermann also referenced another aspect of the American liberal arts model that NYU is adopting in Abu Dhabi – its residential component, and its emphases on peer-to-peer learning and community. Administrators plan to require that all students live in college housing, although Westermann said exceptions will be made as needed.

“In principle, we will require 100 percent on-campus residency the way the strongest liberal arts colleges in North America do,” she said. “We’re really making those values of being in the place very central to the educational experience and central to our campus planning.”

Seeking Synthesis

Peg Downes, a professor of literature and language at University of North Carolina at Asheville, a public liberal arts university, has served as a consultant to the Aga Khan Humanities Project, headquartered in Tajikistan. She traveled to Central Asia in 2000.

"My explorations into this interdisciplinary humanities project, which is revolutionizing higher education for many young citizens in that troubled region, converted me into an avid seeker: What else is happening in liberal education outside the U.S.?" Downes wrote in a 2003 article for the journal Liberal Education. She's been seeking since.

In that article, she wrote of examples of liberal education in Korea, India, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. In an interview, she said the passionate appetite she found for liberal education in Georgia, for instance, "kind of embarrasses me. Our students are sort of ho-hum, OK, analysis, synthesis, core curriculum, broadening...."

It's important to note that liberal education still stands out as an alternative model abroad, that traditional universities and pathways for professional education predominate, with liberal arts colleges and programs educating comparatively small numbers of students. Downes pointed out of liberal education, however, “I’m not sure I’d characterize it as a norm in the United States [either]. I think a number of programs in the United States that say liberal education aren’t really, even without being too purist about it.”


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