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Chinese and Canadian universities meet to discuss liberal arts

Growing interest in the liberal arts in China reflects a return to traditional learning.

BY CHRISTINE TAUSIG FORD | SEP 12 2011

Academics from China and Canada found out just how much they had in common at the first-ever China-Canada forum on the liberal arts, held in Beijing this summer. Organized by Mount Allison University’s president Robert Campbell and its vice-president, international and student affairs, Ron Byrne, the forum brought together 46 Chinese university leaders and eight Canadians from Mount A and five other universities – Acadia, Wilfrid Laurier, the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, Mount Royal and King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario – as well as the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

The forum grew out of a meeting Dr. Campbell and Mr. Byrne had last year with Zhang Xiuquin, a high-ranking official in China’s education ministry. The forum was co-hosted by the China Education Association for International Exchange, whose deputy secretary-general, Yang Meng, spent two years at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario as part of a student exchange. She sees Canada as a leader in liberal arts education. “Liberal arts cause us to learn from other cultures,” Ms. Yang said. “China, even with its thousands of years of history, has much to learn.”

The idea behind a liberal arts education is to open students to a broad world of ideas, expecting they will find a passion for at least some of them, stated Dr. Campbell, who told the Chinese university leaders that the hallmark of the liberal arts is exposure to “a pluralism of ideas … not constrained by perceived wisdom.” He noted that in Canada, liberal arts universities were often founded by “self-made men” – people who believed in the limitless capacity of the individual and the role of a university education to empower graduates for a purposeful life.

His words resonated with many of the Chinese university leaders. “The average Chinese lifespan is 73 years. The aim of the university is to make that life meaningful,” said Shi Jian, vice-president of Sichuan University. He noted that in 2008, when a deadly earthquake struck the Sichuan region, the university encouraged students to return to their communities and help the residents of the region to rebuild.

“We pay attention to civic engagement, and focus on the responsibility our graduates have as 21st-century world citizens, to their families and to society,” added Professor Shi, who himself studied at the University of Toronto and University of Regina and who still does collaborative research with colleagues at the U of R.

A liberal arts education has deep roots in the Chinese culture. “In ancient China, teaching focused on ‘great learning’ rather than the more skills-based ‘minor learning’,” said Yang Huilin, vice-president of Renmin University. “When modern universities arose in the western world, their aims were quite similar to the traditional Chinese view of great learning.”

In some ways, said the Chinese administrators, the growing interest in liberal arts represents a return to traditions that were lost during the Cultural Revolution. Chinese universities are taking a variety of approaches to liberal arts education, and university leaders are rethinking how to develop student-focused, high-quality undergraduate programs.

Some are restructuring their curriculum to be more flexible. Others have modeled their programs on the kinds of compulsory general education requirements common in the United States – a set of required courses designed to introduce students to a wide range of subjects and approaches.

At Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangdong, for example, the common core curriculum includes courses in Chinese history, philosophy, geography, environmental studies, anthropology, law and sociology. Beginning this fall, each undergraduate student will take part in at least one small group, which will meet every four weeks and be led by PhD students. The university, reflecting western ways, is turning to alumni for donations to support its liberal arts program.

Other universities are adopting the “great books” model. Fudan University focuses on “one classic book” teaching, where reading is paramount. Its program, modeled on Columbia University’s, uses a cross-disciplinary approach that emphasizes intensive reading of original texts by writers such as Plato, Kant, Goethe and Marx.

Meanwhile, at Guangxi University, there is a focus on extending the liberal arts not only throughout the curriculum, but in co-curricular and extracurricular activities as well, with lectures and cultural activities designed to better link university students with the local community. “It all boils down to the development of a robust, more balanced individual,” said Li Jibing, vice-chair of the university council. “We are trying to cultivate abilities that are absolutely necessary for daily life in a globalized world.”

Cao Li, vice-director of the liberal arts centre at Tsinghua University, said that the growing interest in the liberal arts is a response to the increasing openness of China and is a way to meet both the challenges and opportunities of globalization.

University leaders confront some common issues. Universities are discipline-focused, and the kinds of interdisciplinary approaches encouraged by the liberal arts can meet with resistance from faculty. “We worry we don’t have the best professors teaching in the liberal arts,” reported Chen Chunsheng, vice-president of Sun Yat-Sen University. “The best professors still want to teach in their own departments.”

It’s also hard to provide enriching learning experiences for undergraduates in an age of mass education. Universities in both countries often focus their best liberal arts programs on a few top students, and the costs can be high.

But there are differences as well. Programs in Canada encourage students to think creatively and critically and to challenge authority – an approach made possible given Canada’s more individualistic culture and small population. In China, with 30 million university students, the focus is on developing core – and common – values.

But whatever the approach to the liberal arts, there remains an eternal question, for Canadian and Chinese university leaders alike. What kinds of jobs await liberal arts graduates? There is no slackening of demand for liberal arts programs, and students are enthusiastic, and keen to enrol. But parents in both countries are often concerned about job prospects.

Academics in both countries tell critics that the liberal arts prepare students with transferable skills for jobs that don’t yet exist. “I tell my students they have four years to read books and think new ideas,” said Robert Perrins, dean of arts at Acadia University. In China, added Professor Cao Li, “We’re looking at how to make students more flexible and adaptable. Innovation and creativity are becoming more important in the job market.”

The second China-Canada liberal arts forum is slated to be held next year in Canada at Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Christine Tausig Ford is vice-president and COO of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, as well as publisher of University Affairs magazine.

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