There are worrying signs today that the United States is turning away from the tradition of liberal arts education that has made it a global leader in post-secondary education over the past century. Universities are cutting language and literature departments, students are entering majors perceived as pre-professional, and some politicians are becoming skeptical about the expenses associated with small classes taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty.
At the same time, there are signs that Asia is turning towards the liberal arts. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Seoul National University in South Korea, Waseda University in Japan, and the National University of Singapore, to name just a few, have recently made major investments in liberal arts education as an alternative to their traditionally highly specialized and technical university programs. It seems that leaders in these Asian countries recognize what some US policy-makers overlook: a nation's strength comes from the type of education it offers.
Asian governments have recognized that in an era driven by innovation, the breadth of an education that encompasses the liberal arts and sciences is a distinct advantage for future workers. Many also recognize the importance of education in history and politics for future citizens in an era of democratization. And Asian educators recognize the ethical benefits of studying literature, philosophy, and social science--the liberal arts give students an opportunity to think about their place in the world and how to live a fulfilled life.
Strong investment in research is one of the reasons for the success of US higher education, and we must hope that public and private investment continues. But the roots of US success go back before the establishment of modern research universities to the tradition of the liberal arts college. US liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Wellesley, and Swarthmore continue to offer a remarkable education, while Ivy League universities like Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia still draw strength from their origins as liberal arts colleges. The strength of its higher education system undergirds US traditions of citizenship, leadership, and creativity, and it has drawn many talented people to this country (I came to the United States from Canada in 1990 to attend graduate school at Stanford). If the United States loses sight of its educational traditions, or sacrifices high-quality education for the lure of inexpensive online degrees, this will damage US leadership at home and abroad.
Today, liberal arts education means, above all, encouraging students' imagination and their ability to think critically about the world. It is my experience, and that of US educators generally, that this is best accomplished in small, intensive seminars focused on discussion, in which the professor does not just lecture but encourages critical discussion of a topic from multiple perspectives. This gives students the opportunity to arrive at their own understanding of the subject and to articulate that understanding. It also allows them to develop their ability to arrive at a consensus or to disagree on a basis of reasoned argument. It is for this reason that the college classroom has been called a laboratory of democracy.
Liberal arts education is not cheap: it requires engaged teaching in small groups by faculty who care deeply about undergraduates. But in a time when the mere provision of information is becoming a commodity, it is the engaged pedagogy of the liberal arts tradition that will keep US colleges and universities on top. The revolution in on-line delivery of education, through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) does offer the prospect of a democratization of access to the great lectures, but it emphasizes a one-way delivery system--a more powerful version of the "sage on the stage"--and fails to provide some of the essential aspects of liberal arts education, namely the peer-to-peer learning that takes place in seminar rooms, residence halls, and extra-curricular activities. …