More than a decade ago, Professor Edward Chen Kwan-yiu was appointed president of Lingnan University. In a press conference, he announced that Lingnan was to be a liberal arts college different from the others locally. Many people in the education field were excited.
Chen has since retired from that position and is now an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong. He probably didn't achieve his aim at Lingnan, at least in the eyes of those who do not believe in "outcome-based" evaluations to judge performance.
Almost a year and a half ago, Chen wrote a book review in which he not only told us what the author thought, but also what he himself thought.
He used a rhetorical title: "Why should we care about liberal arts education?" To say "why should we care" implies either that we don't care, or we don't care enough. So there's a lot for us to digest.
Structurally speaking, if we want a genuine liberal arts college, then we would have to build a small, residential and highly student-orientated institution.
The distinctive feature of that institution would be an emphasis not on professional/vocational training, but on the teaching and learning process.
That process leans heavily on a teaching-focused approach, which is regarded as more important than the content. Most of our universities today, of course, pay no attention to this.
According to Chen, interaction, interdisciplinary studies, intracurricular activities, and international horizon are the four I's that embody that process. Interactions between students and teachers in the pursuit of knowledge, inside and outside the classroom, are frequent. Student-professor relations are close.
Interdisciplinary courses offered as seminars are important - not just multidisciplinary, but cross-disciplinary. This is possible because class sizes are small and teachers are more dedicated. This is not easy in a large university, where professors work more like manufacturers than devoted nurturers.
In a small residential environment, student activities can be related to the curricula, and thereby provide experiential learning.
Small colleges can also engage students more easily in international exchange.
We can say that Chen's criteria have not been matched by any of our institutions. His dream lives on.
Ronald Teng is founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education