February 20, 2009
Liberal Arts In Translation
Colleges abroad are porting the American liberal arts college, but even the branches opened by American universities are a little bit different:
Arguably the most ambitious attempt at a branch campus yet is underway in the United Arab Emirates. While there are also plans for graduate programs, NYU Abu Dhabi is to be, over time, “a full-scale liberal arts college” of more than 2,000 students.
In developing the core curriculum – the college plans to accept its first class of students in 2010 – NYU has identified four broad content areas in which students will have to take two courses each: Pathways of World Literature, Structures of Thought and Society, Ideas and Methods of Science, and Art, Invention and Technology. “They’re not foundations for the major,” explained Mariët Westermann, vice chancellor for regional campus development at NYU. “They open up a whole field of thought and action, you could say, to students.”
Westermann also referenced another aspect of the American liberal arts model that NYU is adopting in Abu Dhabi – its residential component, and its emphases on peer-to-peer learning and community. Administrators plan to require that all students live in college housing, although Westermann said exceptions will be made as needed.
“In principle, we will require 100 percent on-campus residency the way the strongest liberal arts colleges in North America do,” she said. “We’re really making those values of being in the place very central to the educational experience and central to our campus planning.”
John Churchill of Phi Beta Kappa, who’s worked on liberal arts education in China, notes how firmly the idea of the liberal arts is embedded in our culture:
“These are praiseworthy efforts. But the first thing that has to be said is that the liberal arts model as we understand it in this country is an American creation… It has roots in the Oxford tutorial system and yet it is so much a part of the cultural fabric of this country. There are all sorts of linguistic and conceptual hurdles that have to be crossed before you can even begin asking the right questions about whether it’s viable or feasible or appropriate in another cultural context…. So much of what we say about liberal education in the United States has to do with preparation for citizenship in a participatory democracy, with the readiness to apply critical thinking to all claims, and the emphasis on individual development… and so forth. A moment’s reflection will show the difficulty of translating those distinctively American values into a Chinese cultural context. That’s not to say it’s not valuable. It’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just got to be very carefully thought through.”
It’s almost like, by translating the liberal arts into China, Ghana, Poland, or Kuwait, you identify the invariants in the system. This appears to be (in UA-Kuwait’s formulation): “critical thinking, effective communication, innovative leadership, aesthetic appreciation, cultural awareness, ethical standards and technological literacy.”
And, apparently, living in dorms together. Which is not at all to be discounted! I often say that I feel like ALL young people should get the chance to go live away from home with a bunch of other young adults… if you’re an electrician, living with other electricians, farmers with other farmers, etc. There’s something very powerful about that rite of separation and aggregation. It’s like a multi-year Bar/Bat Mitzvah.