Liberal dose of arts rounds out new graduates

One particular feature of American higher education that has caught the imagination of the world is its liberal arts.

In Hong Kong, Lingnan University is modelled on this tradition - a small college that offers a mix of broad, personalised education and subject specialisation to help create more rounded citizens.

Robert Oden, president of Carleton College in Minnesota, one of America's more sought-after liberal arts colleges, was in Hong Kong last month to build new ties with local universities.

'Liberal arts is one of the things that the rest of the world thinks is a lavish waste of money,' he told the South China Morning Post. He knows that it is much more respected than that.

This type of education gave students more than expertise in a given subject or professional field and was more about 'shaping consciousness and prompting creativity'. It was preparation for later specialisation. Its students, for instance moved on to graduate schools to study subjects such as medicine, law and business.

In a college such as Carleton, students typically take three to four courses each semester. Two would be in their chosen subject specialty and one to two in subjects that interested them. An economist, for example, could spend time over the term learning the Chinese language and exploring Latin American history.

Carleton is among the many colleges and universities in the US looking to further its international ties, and to become more cosmopolitan in nature.

It is a small college of just 1,900 students, all undergraduates. Professor Oden described it as a 'little pocket of sophistication and international culture in Minnesota', even though it has not attracted huge numbers of international students. Today, there are 141. This, however, is a massive increase since 2002, when Professor Oden took over as president and it could boast just two.

Among those 141 students are about a dozen from Hong Kong and Professor Oden would like to see many more. He urges students here with an eye on American tertiary education to look beyond the popular east and west coast destinations.

'If you are an international student and would like to know the heart beat of America; if you would like a closer look at how a lot of Americans live, maybe you ought to hang out beyond New York and San Francisco,' he said.

Given its small student body, the college is relatively rich with an endowment of US$600 million. It manages to raise about $28 million a year. Professor Oden said that this financial strength and independence meant it could give assistance to overseas students.

Carleton is extending its liberal arts ethos by building what its president claims is the largest arts centre in a US college. The centre for music, art and the performing arts will also be a venue for regular classes. 'People can take a cello lesson or act in a play, either side of a biology course.'

Arts courses were much more than 'culturally desirable'. 'They are the thing itself. They should be at the heart of learning. They are important to the way of studying and learning.' This was partly because of the 'visual revolution' in which we lived.

The college was fifth in this year's US News and World Report ranking of liberal arts colleges which was headed by Williams and Amehurst colleges in Massachusetts. Professor Oden said Carleton was in the market only for top students who were ready to be industrious.

Hong Kong students did not require A-levels for entry. But high SAT scores were the starting point for admission.

Foreign students may only now be beginning to arrive at Carleton but the college has a long history of links with the outside world.

Since shortly after the First World War, about 20 students a year have gone to the mainland to teach English in Chinese schools and learn Putonghua.

'We have known for a long time that students have to spend a lot of time in other places,' Professor Oden said.