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 – the 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.