'A True Liberal Arts Education'

At a time when the liberal arts sector feels ever-increasing pressure to justify its own existence, and when colleges are feeling a greater and greater need to globalize, a bit of assistance on both these fronts has come from an unlikely source: three unassuming Chinese undergraduates, each of them attending an American liberal arts college.

October 16, 2009

At a time when the liberal arts sector feels ever-increasing pressure to justify its own existence, and when colleges are feeling a greater and greater need to globalize, a bit of assistance on both these fronts has come from an unlikely source: three unassuming Chinese undergraduates, each of them attending an American liberal arts college. Yongfang Chen, Lin Nie and Li Wan, who are now seniors at Bowdoin College, Franklin and Marshall College, and Bucknell University, respectively, are the authors of A True Liberal Arts Education (China Publishing Group), which came out in May and is currently in its second printing.

The book is written in Chinese (although it does include an English appendix featuring interviews Chen conducted with various Bowdoin faculty and administrators), and is aimed at Chinese students who are thinking about going to college in the United States. Liberal arts colleges are little known and little understood in China, so Chen, Nie, and Wan believe that their insights may prove valuable to many. Inside Higher Ed conducted e-mail interviews with all three authors to learn more about the book.

Q: Whose idea was it to write a book about liberal arts education, and how did the three of you end up writing it together?

Yongfang Chen: Since coming to Bowdoin, I have been thinking about how to share my distinctive Bowdoin life with all the people around me. The concept of the American liberal arts education is still extremely foreign and unfamiliar to the Chinese audience. I often wrote blog posts about my life at Bowdoin and showed them to my friends. All of my friends were excited to read my blog and suggested that I publish it.

Li Wan: It was Yongfang’s idea. It’s funny because in fact, up to this point I haven’t met Yongfang in person. I’ve met Lin a couple of times in China, after which she became a regular visitor to this blog that I used to keep. One day over the summer (in 2008) she asked me, “Hey, I have a favor to ask. Two of my friends planned on writing a book together but one of them dropped out the last minute. We’d really like to still have three people on the team; do you think you can do this with us?” I laughed and went, sure. I love writing (especially in my native language), and it was a theme I didn’t even have to try. I’m in the middle of experiencing liberal arts education. So -- writing a book? Why not.

Q: And what were the reasons for writing it?

Lin Nie: We [are] ground-breakers. The public of mainland China always exaggerates the aura of Ivy Leagues. Research shows that no one ever introduced the liberal arts concept to China before us. We are not interested in adding another handbook to the existing Chinese book market, where an excessive amount of books, the majority being purely informational, have been written on the subject of study overseas at USA. The goal was to write about our authentic experience with an honest, reflective, creative, and thought-provoking style.

This has been a great opportunity for us to reflect upon what exactly characterizes the “liberal” education, since Yongfang, Li and I all appear to be ardent supporters of the liberal arts education. Writing the book was a [way] for me to retrospect and draw deeper reflection of my past experiences at F&M. At the time I was invited to this project I’d been a student journalist and writing at a weekly column for a year about my liberal arts experience at a major local newspaper agency (in Shanghai). But I was only able to write anecdotal stories guided by a couple sentences of reflections/take-home messages each time at the end. Although the popular inclination is to identify liberal arts as humanistic, how is it reflected at micro levels in our experiences at all? -- this is always the question that presses on me, and urges me to put the answers into fitting words at full lengths, even to date.

Q: Why did you, personally, decide to come to college in the United States, and how did you choose which college to attend?

YC: I was not satisfied with the Chinese domestic undergraduate education when I was in high school. Hence I decided to study aboard and I finally chose America because I thought America could provide me with the best education in the world. In addition, my high school, Shanghai Foreign Language School (SFLS), has a tradition of sending students to preeminent schools abroad, including the United States. The motto of my high school is "the cradle of cultivating world-renowned diplomats." Each year, our students are admitted by Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many other great schools.

In my second year in high school, an upperclassmate of mine was admitted by Amherst College, and she told me lots of her great experiences at Amherst, such as the photography class she took in her first year. At that time, I knew nothing about what liberal arts colleges were, but it triggered my deep interest and I did some research.

I applied to Bowdoin through the ED program, and luckily I was accepted with full financial aid. I attended Bowdoin because I knew it was a great school but I didn't know why, so I decided to take some risks.

LN: A group of American exchange students from another liberal arts college visited my middle school when I was 12. One of them became friends with me and we started writing to each other. He identified his college as liberal arts, and made that distinct in his storytelling. Through our five years of correspondence, he as an insider constructed a multifaceted image of liberal education to me! ... I was the second student who applied to US colleges in the long history of my high school ever.

The U.S. News ranking, insiders’ (a very small circle of Chinese students from various places who have taken a similar path to get into a U.S. college) opinions, school Web pages, and participating in interviews conducted by international admission officers who flew to major cities in China -- those are what I based on to choose my school. I chose F&M because from what I’d gathered it looked like a good fit to me, and more importantly it offered me an almost-full scholarship.

Q: What aspects of your college surprised you the most when you arrived? What changes were the hardest for you to adjust to?

YC: While the language barrier was relatively easy to conquer, assimilating into a new culture so different from my own was a much more demanding task. Coming from a culture in which a "standard answer" is provided for every question, I did not argue with others even when I disagreed. However, Bowdoin forced me to re-consider "the answer" and reach beyond my comfort zone. In my first-year-seminar, East Asian Politics, I was required to debate with others and develop a habit of class engagement. This sometimes meant raising counterarguments or even disagreeing with what had been put forward. For instance, one day we debated what roles Confucianism played in the development of Chinese democracy. Of the 16 students in the classroom, 15 agreed that Confucianism impeded China’s development; but I disagreed. I challenged my classmates. Bowdoin made me consistently question the "prescribed answer." That was the biggest challenge for me.

LW: There were two things that surprised me the most: one was the resources (both in terms of academics and campus life) that Bucknell has to offer, considering it is a modestly sized liberal arts college located in central PA. One thing I never have to worry about at Bucknell is having nothing to do; granted I have to invest most of my time studying as a consequence of double majoring in mathematics and economics, but outside the classroom I can always find opportunities to engage myself in something interesting. The other thing was about campus life outside academics at Bucknell, aka Greek life. I was really surprised to see how much peer pressure can work on American college students and how much people want to be the same -- to dress the same way and talk in the same tone. The reasons I can think of for that are the school is located in a small town and it is a very close-knit community compared to big universities. Classes were relatively easy for me to adjust to even given the initial language barrier; the real difficult changes were the cultural differences: sometimes you're pressured to get involved in things in order to be “integrated.”

Q: What do you see as the main benefits of a liberal arts education? And what are some drawbacks?

LN: The main benefits of a liberal arts education are direct consequences of its smallness, as well as its strict standard in hiring the most dedicated scholars and teachers who aim to bring the best out of their students. The smallness guarantees small class, a serious, “in-your-face” education. My sophomore year I had a class of seven in “History of Western Theater Dance." For a semester we met regularly in a small seminar room at the Writers’ House and sat around a rectangular red table for discussion -- the Socratic Method in action! ... Two years ago I would tremble to give a presentation in front of my classmates. Now I give presentations in front of professors, and I once led a lecture as a lab assistant. ... Most of the professors I’ve had love the smallness because that is what allows them to really focus on the students, and direct careful feedback toward each student, hence strengthening the mutual responsibilities.

At big universities more alumni are generated from their bigger student population, more connections are built and possibly more internship opportunities [are] available through the alumni; whereas at a small liberal arts college, we don’t have to decide our major until sophomore year; it is possible for any student to take a broad range of classes and graduate without a clear idea of what he is going to do with his major. The drawbacks of a liberal arts education certainly lie in its lack of practicality, but that’s kind of cliché isn’t it? The freedom and choices granted by the liberal arts curriculum are obviously great. But I see them as part of the challenge as well. The task for us is to not be overwhelmed by the choices, not to get carried away by the freedom, and not to let our efficiency be undermined by it. One can design one's own major, [do a] joint major, and do much interdisciplinary work. No matter what one does, part of being a liberal artist is to learn how to design one’s course schedule and wisely choose academic and extracurricular activities during the four years to make one’s profile fit into a self-satisfying and coherent path. Meanwhile the professors are always there to advise, only if you wish and seek out for them. Planning your own career or academic path takes initiative; it also trains you how to maximize the opportunities and resources around you. I have seen the successful cases of my friends who went on to promising jobs and academic careers.

Whether one will be happy or not in a liberal arts college or in a big university largely depends on one's fit with the spirit of the kind of the institution. Essentially it’s about the question of, what are you looking for when you invest in higher education? The genuine liberal arts education is not about “skill” training, despite how curriculums have changed over time with more professional or technological concerns; the liberal arts still remain to offer a serious education sincerely and primarily concerned with the refinement of intrinsic merits; to study the knowledge as its end, not as its means. However, I think the academic skills I learn, the abilities to exercise the power of thinking -- how to read, write, speak, listen critically, and how to qualify and quantify things effectively in order to predict and produce -- are of universal value. Moreover, the process to gain such abilities is a very challenging one, which I devoted several chapters to in my section of the book. I have faith in anyone who is able to independently succeed at the academic as well as life challenges [encountered in] the liberal education process -- that he will be equally likely to rise to all other real-life challenges, and succeed at them. In a nutshell, the education I chose to receive from F&M has equipped me with a fundamental “toolbox” that is designed for building more tools, if needed, to solve any other problems out there.

Q: What are the major points that you hope your readers in China will get from your book?

YC: I hope my Chinese readers will be able to get a general sense of what liberal arts colleges are, and why the system has existed in America for such a long period of time. Also, I want my Chinese readers to know that liberal arts colleges may not be suitable for everyone. When considering applying to a highly competitive college like Bowdoin, they need to really ask themselves: Am I really fond of the culture at a liberal arts college? Can I survive the academic rigor? More importantly, will I regret attending such an expensive school without any financial aid?

LW: 1) We understand you might not have heard of the names of our schools, but we are here to broaden your horizon and provide you with alternative perspectives. 2) Many people in China think that when it comes to pursuing education, it’s always “the higher the better.” But I encourage you to pursue something that fits you the best. 3) Know yourself and be prepared to explore your potentials (both intellectuality-wise and personality-wise), before you make a decision to attend a selective university abroad.

Q. Inside Higher Ed recently ran an article about the growing numbers of Chinese students who are applying to colleges in the United States. What advice would you offer colleges who want to attract more Chinese applicants, or to colleges who just want to improve the experience for their Chinese students?

YC: To attract more Chinese applicants, the admissions officers may consider increasing the visibility of the college culture to the Chinese audience, such as conducting group information sessions and visiting some local schools that have a tradition of sending students abroad every year. In addition, the college can initiate an online chat with prospective applicants several times a year. It is convenient and effective.

LW: Financial aid is probably among the most important factors that can affect a Chinese student’s decision. Also Chinese parents tend to look at the school rankings a lot.

However, from my personal perspective, I think it really helps to be encouraged to participate in different campus activities, to do group projects with American students, and to lead programs that support international student community. I feel like the real challenge that helps me grow so much is not getting As in a foreign language classroom setting. It’s about time management, multi-tasks, life balance, being independent and dependable, and how to interact with people with dramatically different views, personalities and backgrounds. After all, for a lot of Chinese students studying in the States, forcing them to go to the library is never a problem; the problem is how to “force” them out.

LN: I would suggest that schools make their Web sites as clarified, specific and informative as possible. Since now many schools are “going green,” paper-based information brochures are no longer made available to overseas students. Neither could we fly over to arrange campus tours and visit schools for real. Sometimes we (as Chinese applicants) had to “judge by its surface” -- the Web page of the school is very important for us to make decisions. For schools that send their international admission officers overseas to deliver information sessions or individual interviews during the application process, keep doing that!

For schools who want to improve the experience for their Chinese students, I would suggest that they strengthen their international programs and make sure that the international students’ liaisons and international student advisers are really passionate about their jobs.

From when I first arrived at F&M... it was the group of international orientation student assistants (IOA) who made me gain faith in the people here. And then it was Dean Convey (who has left the international student program now) who [kept] the program together. She, together with all other IOAs (a selected group of F&M upperclassmen) are all so welcoming, accepting, not judgmental, and genuinely care about us.


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