The art of adding to our bottom line

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong's universities are preparing to launch four-year undergraduate degrees next year. For the most part, they are not adding more specialised training to existing programmes. Instead, they are adding general education and liberal arts courses, notably in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Given the community's emphasis on jobs and financial success, some may question whether this move towards more education in the liberal arts might be doing students a disservice. But there is little need to worry. More education in the liberal arts will be good for graduates and for Hong Kong's prosperity.

What is meant by a liberal arts education, and how can it benefit Hong Kong?

Some commonly mentioned features of a liberal arts education include enhancing general knowledge; learning about and from a variety of perspectives; encouraging intellectual curiosity; developing thinking skills, reasoning abilities and judgment; and cultivating the mind to maximise each graduate's potential.

Some of the characteristics of a liberal arts education that are mentioned less often include preparation for the real world of work in which one must be able to learn continuously, think creatively and independently, be imaginative, adapt to changing circumstances, be prepared for work in new areas, and be a good local and global citizen.

Liberal arts education is fully consistent with applied degree programmes, such as those in business administration and engineering, and with associate degree and vocational training programmes. Rather than becoming specialist 'machines', graduates with some liberal arts education have exposure to other cultures, to different ways of approaching problems and to the complexities of human and societal interactions. Consequently, they are more likely to question convention and to look for alternative solutions to problems in the workplace.

A liberal arts education cultivates more thoughtful, principled and long-term-oriented professionals. Graduates with a grounding in the liberal arts will be more aware of human flaws, the mistakes of the past, and the needs of other people and the environment. This will enable them to choose to behave ethically in their professions - something sorely lacking in recent years.

How can Hong Kong's universities further the liberal arts? In addition to bolstering their ability to deliver learning in the liberal arts, they should educate local businesses and the government about the utility of the liberal arts for the economy, and raise awareness among students of the value of a liberal arts education.

A narrow view of applied education is counterproductive in a globalised and rapidly changing world. It is in the interest of the Hong Kong administration and local businesses to join their Western counterparts in fully embracing the practical benefits for their bottom lines, and for society, of having more citizens and employees with exposure to the liberal arts.

Professor Paul G. Harris heads the Department of Social Sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education