Speaking about the Liberal Arts in China

NANJING, China – One of the challenges we face in higher education in the United States is how to ensure the academic success of the many new international students from China our universities are welcoming to campus each year.

I am here at Nanjing University in part to create a cooperative program to better prepare students coming to Penn State from China for academic success. Because there is not a strong tradition of liberal arts education in China, part of this preparation involves articulating the meaning and value of the liberal arts.

If our American students struggle with pressure from parents to pursue something “useful” and “marketable” when in college, that pressure is yet more intense for our Chinese international students, many of whom have parents paying enormous sums of money to provide them with an education in the United States so that they will be better able to succeed economically.

Add to this pressure an unfamiliarity with the American tendencies in higher education to focus on active learning practices, and the transition to American universities, particularly those like Penn State that emphasize the importance of the liberal arts, becomes daunting.

In order to better respond to the needs of our incoming international students, we in the College of the Liberal Arts, are working with the Institute for International Students at Nanjing University to develop a preparation program to expose students to the traditions of a liberal arts education prior to their arrival on campus in State College.

We normally think of the liberal arts as the study of specific disciplines–history, political science, economics, literature, philosophy.

In reality, however, an education in the liberal arts has always been a certain kind of practice – the practice of living well, of living an excellent life.

As I have argued, the primary virtue of the liberal arts is ethical imagination Рthe capacity to imagine our way into the position of another, to extend our ability to perceive what beyond our limited perspective.

An excellent ethical imagination enables us to communicate effectively, because we better understand those with whom we speak.

It enables us to appreciate diversity, because we have sought out others unlike ourselves and learned from them.

It enables us to perceive globally, because we have seen ourselves as part of a wider world community.

It enables us to respond to complexity with nuance, because we have carefully studied literature and learned the subtle complexity of the human character.

These are the things an education in the liberal arts enables us to do — they are the tangible practical values of a liberal arts curriculum.

The hope is that we can develop a cooperative program with the Institute for International Students in Nanjing for our incoming Chinese students to learn these things so that they, in turn, can help us and our students learn them better ourselves.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • chuk says:

    not knowing how perceptions and perspectives are related, or how perspectives might said to limit perceptions, it is difficult to imagine what it is to perceive that which lies beyond our limited perspective. an explanation would be most helpful at least of the sense in which "to perceive" is used.
    however, the term "ethical imagination" is a term to delight in, for it suggests that the ethical life is something joyous and beautiful to be created, that the conscious attempt to increase one’s virtues is a happy activity demanding certain vision and knowledge and skill.
    the importance which Professor Long attaches to the disposition to see others sympathetically relative to their interests, personal endowments and external circumstances, and the ethos of the society to which they belong seems sensible even to a lesser man like this commentator. after all living as we do in a society of others, and being creatures in need of society to do anything interesting, the importance of learning to get on with one’s fellows cannot be overstated. but it is not clear whether Professor Long makes this sympathy for others the primary virtue of a liberal education or the enlargement of one’s vision of possible human perfections.
    it is also unclear how a liberal arts education or a carful study of the opinions about “the subtle complexity of the human character” could make us more intelligent or more wholesome. of those opinions, some would be regarded as better than others. does a liberal arts education afford a standard by which to discriminate between better and worse? are we to assume that a carful study of the literary opinions about “the subtle complexity of the human character” would make the ways of thinking, believing, feeling and acting more intelligent? are nuanced responses necessarily intelligent responses? if there is no scientific method by which to discern what is better or best, are we to rely on the preferences of our subjective self and believe that there are no wrong judgements in oder that complexity may be responded to with nuance?
    it is difficult to determine how far these are even intelligent questions. but the yearning for intelligent direction of human life ought to be evident in those less than intelligent questions. whatever order and clarity that Professor Long could bring to this situation would be deeply appreciated

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