World insight: Banging the drum for liberal arts in East Asia

Countries like Singapore are turning to broad-based education just as the US turns away from it, says Trisha Craig

February 19, 2016
ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Source: iStock
ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

There is some irony in the fact that at the very moment that the liberal arts model of education is under attack in the West as impractical and irrelevant, it is being embraced in Asia. Places that routinely post the top international test scores in maths and science – the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea as well as India and China – have moved to create new undergraduate liberal arts programmes or colleges, adopting the broad-based education that defines some of the US’ finest institutions.

Yet the turn, whether towards or away from the liberal arts, seems rooted in a shared concern about preparing the next generation to succeed in a globalised, competitive world. In the US, many have concluded that to prevail in this competition, the liberal arts are an expensive luxury that must be replaced by more technical training and skills. Some policymakers in other parts of the world, looking at the same forecasts, have come to the opposite conclusion and view the liberal arts as essential to the task of training young people; and this is exemplified by Singapore.

The success story of this small island nation in the past half-century is by now known to many: an impoverished and divided country at its founding in 1965, Singapore has progressed to become the world’s third richest nation in terms of per capita income and regularly leads global charts of educational performance. It has done so by pursuing an education policy that has closely mirrored and supported its industrial policy, investing heavily in raising the skill level of the population to allow the country’s economy to move ever higher on the global value chain. For decades, it has placed big bets on science and technology as key to its continued prosperity.

One of the challenges facing Singapore’s education system now, however, is how to remain competitive in a global economy where the centrality of creating new knowledge, the interplay and management of information and the internationalisation of the workforce are all factors that will shape a country’s prospects. And it is in navigating these that Singapore finds the value of liberal arts.

In 2011, Dr Ng Eng Hen, who was then minister of education, described the future Yale-NUS College, the first liberal arts institution in Singapore, which welcomed its inaugural class in 2013, in a speech to his colleagues in parliament. He termed this collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore “strategic” for the country and “a signal to students and parents that critical thinking, analysis and deliberation – hallmarks of liberal arts education  will be needed and valued in education”. He offered his hope that Yale-NUS would move Singapore “from a system that is now world-renowned for students who answer set questions well, to one that produces students who want to start asking the right questions to produce solutions to complex problems”.

Such signalling is important to help the liberal arts set down roots in a country where people are acutely attuned to the link between education and individual and collective well-being. One of the widely shared and oft-invoked national identity narratives in Singapore is that this is an island nation with no natural resources and can only survive by developing its human talent. As a motor for taking Singapore to the next level of its development, the liberal arts are thus linked in this view to the health and wealth of the nation.

Still, there is much more signalling to be done to establish a broad understanding and acceptance of the liberal arts. At Yale-NUS, where I am dean for international and professional experience, we routinely speak of what we do as the liberal arts and sciences to alert the public, particularly parents, that our course of study does not begin and end with the humanities.

The business community is another group to which outreach efforts need to be directed. After all, the shifts in the nature and structure of work envisioned by policymakers or the ability of liberal arts graduates to better adapt to them may not be readily apparent to those who do the actual hiring. Human resources managers in Asia may wonder, as their counterparts in the US often do, whether liberal arts majors have any useful skills.

As is usually the case, it is the students who offer a better response than explanations from administrators or scholarly leaders. While we provide them with the scaffolding of work experience through internships or cultural adaptability via in-depth overseas immersions, the students themselves prove the value of this kind of education. For example, a global affairs major with an understanding of regional political structures who has pursued courses in anthropology and Southeast Asian literature and culture can potentially offer more to a firm wanting to expand its consumer products business into Vietnam than a more “practically” focused marketing major. Similarly, the student who has worked with an environmental non-governmental organisation in rural Sumatra, developed a passion for coffee as a result, and trained as a master roaster is not only better able to close a coffee deal when later interning in a small investment bank but also makes a convert of the hiring manager who was initially sceptical of the value of liberal arts.

As more liberal arts institutions are developed in a part of the world where this form of education has scant history, they can play a role in the ongoing discussion of it where it originated. The journalist and author Fareed Zakaria has called the growing consensus in the US about the irrelevance of a liberal education “America’s last bipartisan cause”. By providing evidence of the very benefits and continued relevance that such arguments explicitly discount, new liberal arts institutions may offer a corrective that policymakers would be ill-advised to ignore.

Trisha Craig is dean for international and professional experience at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

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