Asia must forge its own path on liberal arts, leaders say

An internalised, colonial-era emphasis on exam grades is preventing students from deeper learning, forum hears

June 23, 2022
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Asian liberal arts universities need to forge their own path and break free of the constraints of the Western tradition, according to sector leaders.

Speakers at a Times Higher Education Liberal Arts Forum hosted by Lingnan University Hong Kong agreed that universities in the region must resist the temptation to fit themselves into a mould created decades ago, largely by educators from a Western, Christian society.

Lingnan’s president Leonard Cheng noted that liberal arts were often “associated very tightly with liberal democracy” but cautioned that this wasn’t a precondition for this form of education.

“We also want to unpackage some of the things that come with this approach, such as ideology,” he said.

Instead, Asian universities should turn inward for inspiration, he suggested, noting the region’s “rich tradition” of philosophies that encourage development of the “whole person”, which can be found in myriad sources – from Japan’s Buddhist tradition to the core values of the Koran.

“They should tap into their traditions, into their heritage,” he said of universities.

Saikat Majumdar, professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University, agreed, noting that the majority of universities in his own country still leaned on a philosophy that has its roots in the Indian colonial era.

“By and large, the backbone of Indian public education is this British model, which I think has offered a lot of good things, but it’s not exactly conducive for the kind of interactive, Socratic model of learning that…liberal arts encourages,” said Professor Majumdar.

Colonial education, he added, was not taken from the Oxford or Cambridge model of “close pastoral care” or the German university model of research institutions. Instead, colonial universities traced their lineage back to the exam-driven University of London model, which relied on exams and certification to support a large overseas bureaucracy.

While the Indian middle class had become “very good at cracking that” system of memorisation-based learning, the emphasis on exams could run counter to the aims of a liberal education, Professor Majumdar said.

But overcoming the emphasis on grades was easier said than done, noted Feiyu Sun, associate dean of Yuan Pei College, which is part of Peking University.

In China, where academic achievement is emphasised early on in children’s education and there is high pressure to be top of the class, it was especially difficult to get students to look beyond scores and learn for learning’s sake, he said.

From when they start their schooling, children are hardwired to believe that they must “work hard, pursue better or the best grades” in order to have a “good life”, he said. Winning over students meant altering a deeply ingrained mindset in which grades were an end-goal.

But even among students who pursue a liberal arts education, trying to change the perception that the “exam-driven life” brings happiness and success has proven a hard sell.

“Many students just don’t believe it – and more importantly, parents don’t believe it,” he said.

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