In June, around 9 million students took China’s college entrance exam, also known as the “gao kao.” Over the past week, most of them have been anxiously finding out about the results that could have life-changing implications. But behind the exam-related angst is an important trend: The number of gao kao participants have been shrinking since 2008.
Americanization, step one
According to an article by the Washington Post, the number of Chinese students seeking education overseas, especially in the US, has seen a sharp rise in the past few years, and many of these overseas students have not participated in the gao kao at all. This has not gone unnoticed in China. In fact, many Chinese universities have begun initiatives to steer the style of their education closer to their American counterparts, and calls for educational reform have gradually increased in the past few years.
Many Chinese universities have tried to re-make their education experience to be more like the one offered by liberal arts colleges in the U.S. One of the front-runners of this movement is Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China, which established a subsidiary called Bo Ya College (博雅学院) in 2009 (“Bo Ya” literally means “liberal arts” in Chinese). According to Sun Yat-Sen University, Bo Ya College is modeled after liberal arts colleges in the U.S. and its goals include educating the academic leaders of tomorrow in the arts and social sciences. Going against the strong wind of materialism in China, the school proclaims that “the role models for a Bo Ya College student should be insightful thinkers and intellectuals, instead of successful millionaires.”
Two of China’s most prestigious institutions have also been getting in on the liberal arts trend. Since the early 2000s, Fudan University and Peking University have both undertaken projects similar to Bo Ya College’s. Both universities explicitly label their special programs as “liberal arts.” At Peking University, the popular Yuan Pei Program aims to educate students who can “face the world, the future, and modernization.” Unlike their peers, students in the Yuan Pei Program do not have to declare a major, though they can if they wish.
The goal of the Yuan Pei Program is to “strengthen students’ foundations, de-emphasize the selection of a major, teach students based on their strengths and weaknesses, and foster their growth according to their own characteristics.” The program emphasizes the importance of a broad education as well as the ability to think critically, and it provides students with seminars such as “Critical analysis and writing” and “Global perspectives on cities and public economics and policies.”
Sounds great; and the catch?
Despite the trend, not everyone agrees that China should attempt to adopt the liberal arts approach to education. Many critiques center on the danger of limited political freedom and academic freedom, both of which are considered necessary for a liberal arts education. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education [http://chronicle.com/article/Liberal-Arts-Education-Has/132327/] doubts how far liberal arts can go in China, since many discussions are still considered to be off-limits here. It might be difficult to advance an approach to education that encourages students to think for themselves and question everything they learn if certain topics are not open to discussion.
An even bigger challenge exists on the cultural front. Many Chinese are unsure that the liberal arts approach to education is a good fit for their home country. In an interview with Tea Leaf Nation, one Yale student who grew up in China expressed concern that liberal arts are too foreign and too idealistic for Chinese society. “Most students in China view their college education as a pathway to employment,” he said, “and it’s going to be very hard for the liberal arts approach to survive in China, since everyone is so practical there.”
Unfortunately, this Yale student is not alone. Chen Yongfang, a Chinese student who recently graduated from Bowdoin University and authored a book promoting liberal arts education in China, writes that having a liberal arts education won’t prepare students for a job immediately, even though it helps them to become better thinkers in the long run. In a country where competition for jobs is becoming increasingly fierce, the pressure to earn money is exacerbated by high housing prices and the lack of social security.
Proceed with caution
It appears that the liberal arts approach to education will only take root in China, if it ever does, after years of experimentation and reform. Even though the concept is gaining popularity, liberal arts education can only flourish in China if it can transform itself to fit the country’s specific situation. The critical question is whether this transformation can happen without betraying the core value of liberal arts—that the search for light and truth must go on regardless of external pressures.