Posted by: Jason | December 9, 2009

China and Liberal Arts

Sara, a researcher at the Geochemistry Institute (which is where we’ll be in less than an hour), and I had a long conversation yesterday about the role of a liberal arts education in the Chinese system.  She told me about a book called A True Liberal Arts Education, which was written by three Chinese students studying in the US.

When I got back to the hotel last night, she had e-mailed me an interview with the authors from Inside Higher Ed. It’s a fantastic discussion, and based on other conversations we’ve had on the trip, Beijing’s acknowledgment that a liberal arts education is valuable would be a welcome change.

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.

Here’s Yongfang Chen, a senior at Bowdoin, responding to a question about the biggest challenges he faced in his first year at a liberal arts college –

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.



  1. […] Sarah and I also had a long conversation about education in China – particularly about the utter lack of a liberal arts tradition, and what that means for their approach to environmental problems.  The timing of these posts is a little wonky (I’m on a two-day lag for the main posts, but I’ve been posting a handful of things out of order), and I wrote more about our conversation yesterday morning. […]

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