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A New Attempt in Liberal Arts Education in China

Last updated :2009-09-25

Translated by Eric Shi

Guangzhou, Sep. 22, 2009 (Zhaobao):Sun Yat-sen University has recently launched a series of reform schemes for liberal arts education, including a new requirement that all freshmen are to take the new liberal arts curriculum, and the launch of Boya School, with an attempt to implement the so called elite education by choosing 30 students among college freshmen. To date it’s been the most in-depth and systematic experiment of liberal arts education in China.

The new liberal arts curriculums consist of four categories: Chinese Civilization, Global Perspectives, Technology, Economy and Society, Humanities and Classical Reading. In addition to classical reading, the curriculums on the one hand focus on the Chinese civilization and global horizon, aiming to reshape the subjectivity of Chinese civilization in an era of global integration; and with the requirement of a decent knowledge of mathematics and science, the course of Technology, Economy and Society on the other hand trains students to gain a comprehensive understanding and grasp of the relationship between the development of technology and economy and society.

A good civil education is indispensable from good cultural literacy, In this regard, we should define universities as the "spiritual fortress" of modern society. With the liberal arts curriculums, universities in China aim to cultivate high-quality citizens. By focusing on Chinese and Western classical reading and free discussion, the curriculums require independent thinking and free discussion, so as to gradually shape the values of the students.

New Progress of Liberal Arts Education in Universities
Years ago, there were incubations and experiments of liberal arts education in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and I had written a commentary on it, which was published on Zaobao two years ago.

The importance of liberal arts education in the advancement of Chinese culture can be summed up in two points. On the one hand, in an increasingly individualistic and fragmented modern society, liberal arts education in universities can establish a fundamental platform for the building of social consensus. On the other hand, with a focus on the classical reading of civilization and free discussion, the curriculums can pick up the cultural tradition which we left behind since the Republic period, so as to lay a solid foundation and provide strong imputes for the development of modernization.

In order to probe into the new attempt, Sun Yat-sen University invited Professor Gan Yang to preside over the reform of liberal arts education and to tackle the drawbacks and problems in the previous reform schemes. Currently, the basic idea is to break down the boundaries of different schools to set the best courses as the “common core curriculum” of the University, so that students will engage in the reading of the texts by great thinkers, as oppose to wasting their time on the dogma. The establishment of Boya School made quite a splash and ignited controversy. The curriculums for Boya School completely abandon the “Introduction Courses”. The principal courses for the first semester include Shi Jing (Book of Songs), Ancient Greek Epic and Latin, which are consistent with the philosophy of “less is more”. The courses feature much more reading, discussion and assignments than the ordinary courses. Boya School admits around 30 college freshmen every year and takes the small class teaching pattern.

Targeting at Cultivating Scholars instead of Millionaires
Gan Yang, Dean of Boya School, said that Boya targets at cultivating great scholars but not individuals aspiring to make big buck and the enrolment should be at the consent of parents. Although this remark quoted by media triggered public challenge, students are least by the perspectives of unemployment, and they concur with the saying that “liberal arts students are cultivated to be learned thinkers and great scholars instead of billionaires”, China needs no experts and white collars but scholars. It is by no means a coincidence that universities in Guangdong breaks new ground in liberal arts education. The key reason for the breakthrough is that Guangdong has accumulated enough capacity to relinquish the acts of staging cultural activities for the sake of economy and go beyond the stage of “wen hua da tai, jing ji chang xi” (culture serves as the cover for the economic development”. And the fact that students of the Boya School come from more than 10 provinces or cities indicates that education that aims to nurture cultural literacy rather than pushing students into pool fraught with capitalistic logic has already gained certain recognition in the society.

According to the current development trends, it is with little doubt that China can sustain its economic growth. What is more challenging is the making of breakthrough in the cultural advancement. One of the obstacles is that people are satisfied with the instrumental role of culture as a money-making machine, which is empty and shallow. In order to achieve the great cultural advancement, we need to go beyond the doctrine of “culture serves for economy” with the economic development. The most crucial point is that those responsible for cultural advancement should take the initiative to create a suitable atmosphere for the cultivation of cultural literacy.

In this sense, the new experiment of liberal arts education in universities of Guangdong indicates that cultural advancement in no longer governed by economic logic. This is an important sign of change in contemporary Chinese cultural milieu.