The enduring virtues of the liberal arts
""If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him." Source: Pexels

The liberal arts-based model of higher education has largely remained at the margins of the higher education marketplace across Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific. While there are some highly notable liberal arts-based colleges and universities across Asia, and the launch of the Yale-NUS initiative in Singapore in 2011 notwithstanding, unfortunately, liberal arts institutions have largely not proliferated the broader higher education landscape across these regions.

Instead, the phenomenal expansion in recent years of the higher education marketplace in Asia has been overwhelmingly marked by professionally-based career preparation, as well as vocation-related institutions and programmes.

The liberal arts approach emphasises a distinct culture of learning, a holistic vision of education tailored to foster a passion for lifelong learning. It cultivates a rich understanding of the depth and breadth of knowledge through immersion in the arts, humanities, natural, and social sciences, while emphasizing “higher order thinking skills” – intellectual independence, imagination, creative problem-solving abilities, analytical and critical thinking, superior communication skills, and knowledge creation.

Colleges and universities adhering to this ethos have been deeply invested in high-impact teaching. Interwoven with this holistic vision of education, the liberal arts engender civically engaged and conscientious citizens. Indeed, the liberal arts tradition has traditionally been viewed as critical preparation for responsible citizenship in society.

An Asian Development Bank report on higher education noted that as “demand for expanded higher education systems is increasing, so is concern about the quality and relevance of the education provided.” Even as both public and private sectors of higher education in many Asian countries have made great strides “in expanding access, diversifying curricular, and experimenting with new instructional delivery systems,” the report also notes the continued need to improve “the relevance of [the] curriculum and instruction.”

Oh, the things you will learn from a liberal arts education. Source: Shutterstock

In this context, it is especially critical that we not lose sight of the transformative qualities and virtues of a well-rounded and student-centred liberal arts education for economic and social development. There are three key – often overlooked – considerations in today’s higher education marketplace that must be recognized, to better appreciate the continued need for a liberal arts-based education.

A student-centred education in the 21st century is not only a critical ingredient – but arguably an increasingly indispensable one – to foster engaged, ethical, conscientious, caring and intellectually mature citizens who see themselves as part of a larger and meaningful body politic.

This is the ultimate treasure of a liberal arts-based education. The liberal arts model is arguably more imperative to the vitality and vigour of building and nurturing democratic institutions now than ever before.

With its central commitment to the nourishment of the intellect and the cultivation of finer human values, a superior liberal arts-based education is, in essence, the incubator of civic culture, civic engagement, a genuine sense of citizenship, and a commitment to the pursuit of social justice; all critical elements of a thriving democratic society.

Therefore, a liberal arts-based education is perhaps more relevant and necessary in the coming decades, when much of the civic ethos and the commons in several societies across Southeast Asia and the Pacific become increasingly undermined by emboldened kleptocracies. And sadly, sometimes compounded by broader public indifference and apathy.

Second, and rather ironically, it seems that amidst the increased emphasis on career-oriented, vocation-based education, there is, in fact, evidence of an acutely compelling rationale for the continued importance (and the practical benefit) of the liberal arts-based education.

In fluid and ever-changing regional and global socio-economic conditions, most experts agree that college graduates can expect several transformative changes in their work culture and will change careers several times during their working life cycle. Employment trends suggest that this phenomenon has already become a widespread reality in the US and Europe, and will increasingly become the norm across a number of middle-income Asian countries.

As automation becomes reality, the liberal arts graduate will have the most employable skills. Source: Shutterstock

In such dynamic career-related conditions, which are expected to be more the norm than the exception in the foreseeable future, the flexibility and adaptability of graduates especially in emerging economies become all the more a premium. Arguably, such qualities are best fostered in the guiding ethos of an excellent, well-rounded liberal arts education; not the kind of education that is minimalist and one-dimensional, but one that cultivates in students – in professional programmes or otherwise – an ability to confront new frontiers, new realities, to have faith in their honed-in analytical and critical thinking skills, and to be able to adapt to emergent challenges and unanticipated opportunities.

Frankly, much conventional wisdom about the liberal arts’ demise notwithstanding, the assessments about foreseeable economic and systemic realities associated with working life cycles of college graduates present policymakers and students alike with a potent (and practical) rationale for investing in a well-rounded liberal arts education that equips graduates not for that first job, but instead to confront their impending lifetime of professional challenges and being able to reinvent themselves, as they will no doubt have to do at different stages of their working life.

Third, the intrinsic value of a well-rounded and student-centred liberal education, where the development of the whole individual is paramount, remains a compelling and enduring factor for why the liberal arts model must continue to matter.

When we nourish the spirit, contemplate issues of morality, service, conscience, and delve in the study of history, the fine arts and languages, learn practical skills, while – among other things – also fine-tune our grasp of the scientific process of discovery, we are, very simply, enlightened.

We derive a fuller appreciation of the self, a deeper grasp of our humanity (and that of others).

Along these lines, Richard Hersh, a former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has noted that the liberal arts play a central role in “meaning-making,” and in “the innate human need for coherence”.

In addition, I will note that it is ironic indeed that precisely during these years, when many skeptics have been questioning the continued relevance of a liberal arts-oriented education, we have been subjected to a rather curious (or perhaps not) precipitous trend toward student-centered, interactive, nimble, and intensive educational experience that has historically been the trademark of institutions committed to the liberal arts tradition.

Irrespective of their relative effectiveness in trying to capture some of the energy and ethos of a liberal arts-based education, which values personalized attention and excellent teaching, these efforts represent an unambiguous acknowledgement of the virtues of a student-centred education. Indeed, it is a revealing and refreshing commentary (and reminder) about everything that is right and enduring about the liberal arts.

In a speech to honour Robert Frost at Amherst College in 1963, President John Kennedy noted: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision …”

In this vein, I submit that the same premise applies to the liberal arts in general. Indeed, the cultures, ideas and deep traditions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific can also continue to be nourished and advanced through enabling educators and the liberal arts alike to be innovative and transformational.

The strengths and virtues of the liberal arts-based education are ultimately the bedrock of a vibrant and democratic society. Ironically, in an age of globalization, we also see intense and deeply embedded parochialism, identity politics, and social fragmentation (and this is not just endemic in a number of Asian societies). Higher education systems need to be reinvigorated to also be spaces for some more enlightened and open discourse to help overcome such destabilizing forces.

In this regard, the defining pillars of an excellent liberal arts-based education is critical to enabling social and economic advancement.

Sunil Kukreja is a professor of sociology at the University of Puget Sound, US.

Liked this? Then you’ll love these…

3 benefits of studying liberal arts in the US

The value of an Arts education