A school for thought

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 October, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong has been overwhelmed by American cultural icons, from Starbucks and the iPhone to sending children to top universities in the United States, such as Harvard, Yale and MIT. But at least one aspect of US culture has made little impact here: its many top-notch liberal arts universities, which are often called colleges.

It was only recently, when the Catholic Church's Jesuit order unveiled a plan to build a liberal arts university in Hong Kong, that the US teaching model began to spark the curiosity of parents and students.

Liberal arts colleges focus on teaching undergraduates, rather than conducting expensive research and training graduate students in professional specialities.

While the humanities enjoy pride of place in their curriculums, many of these colleges also have distinguished faculties in science and engineering. The focus on undergraduates means students develop much closer relationships with their professors rather than spending all their time with teaching assistants - as is often the case at large, prestigious universities.

Century-old liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Swarthmore and Williams focus on undergraduate teaching in small classrooms. St John's College, which has campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, teaches the entire Western canon - from ancient Greek mathematics to the music of Bach - that underpins Western civilisation.

Their strong emphasis on liberal arts leads to students developing their general knowledge and intellectual and reasoning capabilities, rather than preparing them for a specific career or trade. Many of their graduates, however, go on to top graduate schools, and the best law and medical schools in the country.

An American Jesuit, Reverend Michael McFarland, is the temporary head of the proposed Hong Kong university. On a visit to the city this month, he said a liberal arts institution in Hong Kong would train 'leaders with innovative ideas' comparable to the late Apple chief Steve Jobs and former US president Bill Clinton, rather than the technocrats who emerge from traditional classroom training. McFarland is a computer scientist and president of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The syllabus would be changed slightly to adapt to Chinese culture, by replacing Western history and literature with their Chinese counterparts, he said. But the university would be run on the same principles.

McFarland said Hong Kong needed to stay 'constantly innovative' to stay competitive in the global market, warning that the practice of 'playing safe' would be a drag on the city; eventually it would be overtaken by rivals.

'To stay competitive, Hong Kong needs business entrepreneurs and leaders with innovative ideas ... We found that in the US a lot of the leaders coming from liberal arts education, including Steve Jobs and Bill Clinton. We believe liberal arts education would work for Hong Kong,' McFarland said.

Computer visionary Jobs had argued that computer science and liberal arts were linked, even though he famously failed to complete his studies at a liberal arts college. 'Our goal was to bring a liberal arts perspective and a liberal arts audience to what had traditionally been a very geeky technology and a very geeky audience,' Jobs once said. 'In my perspective ... science and computer science is a liberal art; it's something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life.'

Another key feature of liberal arts colleges, small-class teaching, encourages interactive learning through students' participation, active discussion and heated debate. Students expected to be criticised and to learn from the criticism, McFarland said.

'We want people who like challenges, because that would push them to achieve the best,' he said. 'We have a drive for excellence, and our teaching model takes every student as an individual and allows them to build their own talents.'

In Hong Kong, Lingnan University is the only university that brands itself a liberal arts college. Liberal arts subjects make up at least one-quarter of the subjects a student is required to take. Each student must take subjects in four areas: logical and critical thinking, the making of Hong Kong, understanding morality, and world history and civilizations.

Chinese University has taken note of the trend. From next school year, all undergraduates will be required to take at least 21 units, or seven courses, from four areas of 'general education': Chinese cultural heritage; nature, technology and environment; society and culture; and self and humanity.

The benefits of this approach remain unknown. But liberal arts education has already proven a success for some of its graduates, including prominent businessman Stephen Ng Tin-hoi. Ng was among the earliest batch of Hong Kong students to study liberal arts, back in the 1970s, when he won a scholarship to study in the United States.

'You would not know what a liberal arts education is simply by reading the brochure,' Ng said. 'I was told the programme would have a wide range of subjects to cover, including those which were completely new to me. But I was rather confident and believed nothing could trouble me.'

During his four years of study at Ripon College, in Wisconsin, the Hong Kong student - who majored in mathematics - also learned about a wide range of unrelated subjects such as music, psychology and German. Ng said that he adapted easily to the new learning model. 'Maybe because I was very young at the time, I found it easy for me to adapt to any new challenges,' he said.

'The comprehensive learning model really broadened my horizon. Through a variety of subjects, I was trained to adopt different lines of thoughts and became more open to new ideas and different opinions.

'Having friends in other faculties was also beneficial for learning, as you would expose yourself to different views and approaches,' Ng said.

Ng praises small-class teaching, with sometimes as few as five or six students in the room, because it enables participation and interactive learning. 'My original plan was to study at a mainstream university like many other Hong Kong students. But when I look back, I found I really learned and benefited a lot from liberal arts study,' he said.

Another graduate of a liberal arts college, Professor Graham Harman, also admires the teaching model. Harman, now associate provost for research administration at the American University in Cairo, attended St John's College - where an extreme approach to liberal arts education requires students to study in areas that might not be their particular strengths.

'For example, we had to study ancient Ptolemaic astronomy (in which everything revolves around the earth) as well as Maxwell's equations [the principles of electrodynamics],' Harman recalls. 'It was also somewhat difficult to learn Greek. The way to overcome is through persistence.

'Most young people today will not retire in the same field in which they start their careers. Indeed, most of them will retire in some field that does not yet exist. For this reason we should educate our minds to be broad and flexible, and the best way to do this is to study the greatest human achievements of our entire past history, in literature, philosophy, art, music or science. That is what a liberal education means to me.'

But, like any teaching model, liberal arts has its drawbacks - it can engender a certain snobbery, Harman warned.

'Focusing on all the greatest products of the human imagination is a good way to protect yourself from being overly impressed by 'trendy' topics, but there is also the danger of wrongly assuming that the great historical eras of the past were superior to our own. Many of the most amazing things in human history are happening at this very moment, and will be admired in the future just as we admire ancient Greece or the Italian renaissance right now.'

He said the best way to avoid this was not to stay in the liberal arts field forever. 'After finishing your education, go out and get a job in something very contemporary, to reawaken your sense of the present,' he said.


The expected cost, in HK dollars, of the college planned by Jesuits at Fanling. Initial enrolment of 3,000 students is expected by 2014

Route to the top

Some famous names from American liberal arts universities

Bill Clinton, former president of the United States. Georgetown University, Washington

Barack Obama, president of the United States. Occidental College, Los Angeles (two years only)

Hillary Rodham Clinton, US secretary of state. Wellesley College, Massachusetts

Ronald Reagan, former US president. Eureka College, Illinois

Reed Hastings, chief of Netflix and Fortune's top chief executive in 2011. Bowdoin College, Maine

Steve Jobs, Apple founder. Reed College, Oregon (did not graduate)

Leehom Wang, singer/song writer, record producer, actor. Williams College, Massachusetts

Nancy Reagan, former US first lady, Smith College, Massachusetts

Harrison Ford, actor/ producer. Ripon College, Wisconsin

Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state. Wellesley College

Madam Chiang Kai-Shek, (Soong May-ling). Wellesley College

Diane Sawyer, ABC News presenter. Wellesley College