Debate about the social, political and economic value of studying arts and humanities is nothing new. Opinions have ebbed and flowed over the past century or more, but in the modern world, where the worth of specific courses and research projects – and the grants and funding which support them – is often tied to forecast monetary outcomes, there is constant pressure to justify and explain.
For that reason, Lingnan University and the Centre for Global Higher Education are co-organising a wide-ranging series of webinars which give senior academics and policymakers the chance to examine the issues and set out their views.
The latest event took place on January 26, with the focus on liberal arts and the humanities in East Asia and the United States, allowing two distinguished speakers to outline the historical context, reflect on some of the current challenges, and stress the importance of creative thought and culture in an era increasingly dominated by technology, conformity and financial motives.
Professor Leonard Cheng, President of Lingnan University, noted that while the teaching of arts and humanities might be “down”, when compared with the attention now given to STEM and business-related subjects, it would never be “out”.
To support this viewpoint, he explained the lasting appeal of the concept of whole-person education. This is deeply rooted in both the long European tradition of the study of liberal arts going back to ancient Greece and, contrastingly, in China’s system of boya education. It can also be seen in the Confucian and neo-Confucian models which continue to influence countries and communities throughout East Asia.
“In well-known universities in China, for instance, ideally every major should now be built on a foundation which emphasises not only the so-called 21st-century skills, but also cultural education, other attributes and virtues, entrepreneurship and so on,” Cheng said.
Citing a range of examples from Japan and South Korea, he also highlighted how the top technical institutes in those nations require undergraduates to take liberal arts courses. The aim is to produce well-rounded individuals with a broader perspective, an appreciation of the forces at work beyond the boundaries of science, and the outlook and personal strengths needed to be internationally competitive.
“Arts and humanities will always be indispensable to creativity and humanism in a world of automation and smart manufacturing,” Cheng said. “They are also important for cultivating national cultures and values."
Prior to that, Mickey McDonald, President of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, spoke about liberal arts education in the United States. He was particularly keen to emphasise that the approach is not static now, and never has been. It has evolved in purpose, context and content depending on where it is practised and in response to changes in society and the realm of higher education.
In this respect, McDonald noted the vital contribution made by Richard Detweiler’s recent book The Evidence Liberal Arts Needs: Lives of Consequence, Inquiry and Accomplishment. It contains data showing that some of the most critical aspects of what’s taught in these courses, how it is taught and learned, and how the educational environment is organised, have a clear correlation with “important positive life outcomes”.
Indeed, the various interlinked elements add up to create an educational ecology which is typically designed to transform lives.
“This agrees with my decades of experience, largely at small, residential US-based liberal arts institutions,” McDonald said.
He added, though, that such institutions must continue to adapt and evolve, perhaps more swiftly than before, to take account of ongoing shifts in context and purpose, as well as to overcome challenges and seize opportunities.
The most significant of these shifts can be grouped under four main themes. The first is political and societal, which includes how higher education in general and liberal arts in particular are viewed in terms of their purpose and impact on society. The second concerns employment, more specifically the kind of jobs and futures that await graduates with liberal arts degrees. The third is the ongoing demographic shift and its effect on enrolment by region and race. And the fourth is the cost of higher education and how it should be paid for now and in the years ahead.
“I agree that a purely economic assessment of the impact of higher education is too narrow and is dismissive of the nobler purposes,” McDonald said. “In an increasingly globalised world, we need people who are curious, can reason well and think critically, can innovate and view problems through multiple lenses, can communicate and are accepting of others who have different life experiences. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the economic impacts of higher education are part of the reality of our current political and societal context, certainly in the US.”