Peking’s pedagogic approach is training captains to navigate choppy global waters, explains Enge Wang
We live in a period of unprecedented opportunity and daunting challenges. On the one hand, the rapid advancement of science and technology is improving people’s lives thanks to better healthcare, living conditions and communications. On the other hand, humanity still shivers in the shadow of war and atrocity: the threat of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, disastrous environmental deterioration and clashes of nation and civilisation remain clear and present dangers. We are still not free from hatred, greed, selfishness, tribalism and territorialism.
In the midst of this drama, China, a country with a quarter of the world’s population, has re-emerged as a swiftly growing world power in economic strength and political influence. Undoubtedly, whether it can further its progress to become a more modern and open society and a responsible member of the global village is of paramount importance to the world.
More urgently than ever, the world yearns for leaders who possess a deep understanding of the humanities, culture and science, who have far-sighted vision, who are equipped with the capability for rational, critical and creative thinking, and who possess the characteristics of perseverance and determination. Peking University, the oldest and most influential institution of higher learning in China, bears an unyielding responsibility to cultivate such leaders.
Peking has had an unparalleled impact on China’s social development. It was established as the pre-eminent national institution for higher learning in the late Qing Dynasty and was transformed into a research university in the early 1900s.
Since its infancy, the institution has been the point of origin for every major social movement in contemporary Chinese history, as well as a bridge between East and West. Yan Fu, an early Peking president, paved the way to the Chinese Enlightenment by translating and introducing monumental works such as Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Cai Yuanpei, the founding father of modern education in China, ignited the spiritual torch of unrestricted intellectual exploration, which became the motto and a quintessential belief that fundamentally defined Peking. He and his colleagues including Hu Shi, Chen Duxiu and Lu Xun led the May Fourth Movement that ended the feudal system in the early 20th century. For the first time in Chinese history, these visionary leaders explicitly advocated “Democracy and Science” – often referred to as “Mr D and Mr S” – which became beacons for the whole society.
Peking presidents Cai Yuanpei, Hu Shi and Fu Sinian also established the Chinese academies of sciences, social sciences and the humanities, and forcefully drove academic research in the country. Meanwhile, Peking’s academics and associates, including Mao Zedong, were the main proponents of Marxism and socialism in China and established the Chinese Communist Party. For more than three decades, the university has been on the front line of guiding the country’s rapid development, formulating the “open-door” policy and producing the conceptual framework for reform – plus a large number of the leaders who have implemented it.
At Peking, education is a matter of inspiration, as the pedagogy required to cultivate leaders is qualitatively different from that needed to produce technical experts. In an increasingly utilitarian world, the university continues to uphold the ideal that personal success be married with higher callings.
It has never been the institution’s goal to produce technically well-trained but intellectually underdeveloped individuals. While we ensure that students receive concrete training in each discipline, we passionately encourage them to develop rational, critical and creative thinking informed by a sense of history and a philosophical perspective.
The university believes that a liberal arts education offers tremendous lifelong value to students. Peking is one of a handful of all-round liberal arts universities in China, with leading scholars across the humanities, social sciences, science and technology on the payroll. This broad-based provision plays a central role in our cultivation of future leaders.
Just as the arts, humanities and social sciences are indispensable foundations for every student’s growth, a general and integrated scientific education is also essential for today’s citizens – and even more so for future leaders. The knowledge and capabilities of modern science and technology enable artists, writers, lawyers and social scientists to be more creative and imaginative, infused with deeper understanding of human nature, often even in quantitative ways. Therefore, while we emphasise our humanities and social sciences foundation, we equally insist that students have a solid background in science: mathematics, physics, chemistry, life sciences and information science are introduced to all.
Insisting on excellence in studies with such breadth and depth poses a serious practical question: how can we avoid student burnout and leave them with enough time and energy to explore freely, think deeply and even daydream? Like our colleagues all over the world, we are constantly attempting to address this question. We do not pretend to have solved it, but we are exploring several options.
First, the curriculum needs to be updated and reorganised in a more efficient way. Second, the sciences, humanities and social sciences should be taught in an integrated manner that unites all parts into meaningful wholes. Third, technologies such as the internet, interactive learning software and online courses need to be utilised to enhance teaching-learning proficiency.
Fortunately, our faculty and students are fully convinced of the value of all-round education. With this unshakeable conceptual consensus in place, practical experiments with new pedagogy can thrive.
One of the experiments relates to globalisation. For China to be integrated into the global village and for the world to know and accept the country as a fully respected member, mutual communication is a must.
We prepare our students for a globalised world by promoting a sound understanding of mankind’s treasured heritage. More than 60 per cent of our students and 90 per cent of our faculty have international experience via academic exchanges.
In the reverse direction, in 2012 there were more than 1,000 international faculty members teaching on campus for various periods, 2,000 visits from international experts, 2,479 degree-pursuing foreign students and 6,000 visits by non-degree students. Currently, an ambitious plan is being charted to make Peking a hub for eminent international scholars, investigators, developers and students. In light of this, we are establishing full English course tracks in different disciplines for foreign students as well as their domestic peers.
Education is open-ended and needs constant innovation and experimentation. We recognise the necessity of a trial-and-error approach and so have established Yuanpei College, named after Peking’s most influential leader in education, Cai Yuanpei. The college serves as a testing ground for all kinds of reform and innovation in higher education, including changes in admissions processes and the creation of new and integrated curricula in science, liberal arts and the social sciences.
This is a critical time for China and the world. As the pre-eminent and most influential educational institution in the country for more than a century, Peking will continue to be a leader in Chinese higher education and will constantly improve itself to become a truly world-class university.
The global play goes on: together we will contribute a verse.
Enge Wang is professor of physics and president of Peking University.