Pursuing a Liberal Arts Education in China

Like many top students in Chinese high schools, Chen Yongfang dreamed of attending college in the United States. But unlike many of his classmates at Shanghai's Foreign Languages High School, Chen did not set his sights on Harvard, Yale, or any of the other Ivy League schools or big research universities long coveted by the Chinese. Instead he applied to Bowdoin College, a small, elite liberal-arts college in Maine. Chen received a full scholarship to study psychology, and he later added economics as a second major.

Now in his senior year, Chen has become such a devotee of the liberal-arts approach that he's made it his mission to spread the word throughout China. He has coauthored a book called A True Liberal Arts Education, which essentially explains the little-known concept to Chinese students and their parents. "Most Chinese people only know about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton," he says over coffee in a Shanghai café during his winter vacation. Though there have been many books about how to get into Ivy League universities, "there was not a single book in China about the smaller liberal-arts colleges," he says. The book, which Chen wrote with friends Ye Lin and Wan Li, who also attend small U.S. colleges, touts such benefits as intimate classes (the student-to-faculty ratio at Bowdoin is 9:1) and professors who focus on teaching rather than research. Chen, 23, explains that he was won over by Bowdoin's commitment to nurturing skills for life, rather than simply for the workplace. "Liberal arts is about fostering your identity," he says. "They want to cultivate your mind. You may not remember all the knowledge you've learned after four years, but they want you to know how to learn."

Chen himself is a walking advertisement for the breadth of the liberal-arts approach. Over the past four years he's taken courses in art, infant and child development (which included an internship at Bowdoin's child-care center), the history of sexuality (taught within the department of gay and lesbian studies), and the history of the U.S. Civil War. He's also carried out independent-study projects on such subjects as software piracy and China's first female ruler, Tang dynasty empress Wu Zetian. In his final semester, he's studying Japanese politics and taking a course on leadership taught by a former Maine senator. Chen has been particularly struck by the close interaction with faculty members. "There are only a few people in each class, so we have a very good relationship with our teachers," he says. "Often they invite you to their homes. In a Chinese university, where they have 10,000 students a year, this is just not possible."

Yet he admits that liberal arts may be a hard sell in a country with an increasingly competitive job market. The book states bluntly that in the short term, a liberal-arts education won't improve job prospects. "In China, employers are looking for someone who can come in and start working immediately when they graduate, not someone who still needs to be trained in practical skills," Chen says. At the same time, he argues that many employers say liberal-arts graduates perform better over the long term. And Chen, who plans to look for a job in the U.S. in consultancy or the nonprofit sector and return to China later, may have struck a chord: over the past couple of years, applications from China to U.S. liberal-arts colleges have risen significantly. Bowdoin now has 300 Chinese applicants a year, compared with 100 a couple of years ago.

The book, which received wide media coverage in China and now has a waiting list for its second print run, is certainly timely: it plays into a growing debate in China about what national universities should be teaching. The country needs a workforce with the skills and creativity to help move away from low-cost manufacturing and, in economic terms, move up the value chain. And some educators believe liberal-arts training is vital to help China deal with its increasingly complex new realities. "We're living in a modern society," says Liu Chang, a history professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. "Every citizen needs liberal arts—history, literature, science, philosophy, morality. To be a good citizen you have to get this education." Yet his colleague the well-known intellectual historian Xu Jilin believes that China's rapid expansion of higher education—from 1.5 million graduates a year in the late 1990s to more than 5 million last year—has had a detrimental effect on curriculum as the country's universities race to compete globally. "Education these days is like factory-farming chickens," he says. "Universities all want to get into international rankings—and most of these depend on research. They're not interested in providing a unique education for our kids."

A few of China's top universities have begun experimenting with aspects of liberal-arts learning. Shanghai's Fudan University has introduced an Oxbridge-style residential-college structure and, in a significant break with tradition, allows students to put off deciding their major until their second year. Guangzhou's Sun Yat-sen University has gone further, setting up a separate liberal-arts college in which a test group of 30 top students study courses based on the Chinese classics, Greek, and Latin, as well as science and economics. Prof. Gan Yang, who leads the experiment, says it will create socially engaged thinkers rather than "instant billionaires." But it has sparked criticism for promoting elitism; one Chinese newspaper warned that such programs could lead to intellectual discrimination. Others argue that China should instead focus resources on advanced vocational education to provide the technical skills that many industrialists say the country lacks.

Doubts also remain as to just how much China's political system can really support an educational approach designed to encourage critical thinking. Yet Edmund Kwok, executive vice president of United International College in the southern city of Zhuhai—a cooperative with liberal-arts-based Hong Kong Baptist University—believes attitudes are changing. He notes that local authorities in Guangdong, eager to end the area's dependence on manufacturing and build a knowledge-based economy, endorse his university's approach: blending a core curriculum with "whole-person education" based on experiential learning, team-building activities, and emotional-sensitivity training. "In the 21st century, Chinese society needs to be much more flexible, receptive, and sensitive," he says. "Liberal education can match the human-resources needs of China and of the multinational corporations coming in, which need people with wider horizons." It's an economic logic that the Chinese bureaucracy might actually buy.