Students need a dose of liberalism

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 4:38am

Asian parents are obsessed with brand-name universities like Harvard and Yale. Just ask Chow Sang Sang boss Gerald Chow King-sing, who spent US$2.2 million unsuccessfully trying to get his two sons into Harvard.

But one of America's best-kept secrets in higher education is its many excellent liberal arts colleges. Nothing beats the camaraderie among the students and intense mentoring by the professors at these top colleges, said Jane McAuliffe, president of the all-women Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, one of the top colleges in the US. McAuliffe is in Hong Kong to attend a forum with alumni from Asia.

I know it's true from my own experience. With smaller, elegant campuses, these colleges are free of large lecture halls and the impersonal teaching by assistants and unapproachable professors at large universities.

"The undergraduate curriculum may not be all that different from a university, but the student gets involved in the life of the whole community," McAuliffe said. Such college life is often the most intensely scholarly, exploratory and happiest times for many of the graduates. Hollywood's teen movies tend to emphasise the sex and booze in college, but as well as the party animals, you will meet many gifted young people, some of whom will become your lifelong friends - brilliant, thoughtful and self-aware kids with a deep yearning to learn, reflect and discover.

American liberal arts colleges have traditionally had mostly domestic students, but McAuliffe said more and more realise they must attract international students. Many like Bryn Mawr are opening up with recruitment drives in Asia and the Middle East.

"It's one world for your daughter and my students," she told me. For example, McAuliffe said there were more students from China than ever at Bryn Mawr.

Our Chinese students are often perceived as lacking creativity, maturity and independence. Don't blame rote learning, which actually helps many pupils master the basics on which to build higher learning. It has more to do with doting parents supervising their every move.

Four years of an independent college life will make an educated adult out of any Chinese child.