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GLADE: Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments and the Contemporary Research University___

---The concept of the university, like any other concept, is invented to accomplish historical work and there is no concept without a history of that concept and of conceptuality as an open structure. What, then, is the concept of the “university” for our time of globalization and its discontents, cross-culturality, and digitization? More particularly, how are the Global Liberal Arts being employed in research comprehensive universities in which there is immense pressure to focus on specialization and on the academic staff to published only work aligned with ever more tightly defined research outputs and impacts?

This is a very old and very stale quarrel. “For the vast majority of students,” one cultural critic has reminded us, “academic study is nothing more than vocational training. Because `academic study is has no bearing on life,’ it must be the exclusive determinate of the lives who pursue it (1) [and] the perversion of the creative spirit into the vocational spirit, which we see at work everywhere, has taken possession of the universities as a whole and has isolated them from the nonofficial, creative life of the mind” (3). This sounds quite familiar: the university is simply training—the transmission of a set of specialized skills from teacher to student—for a lucrative job. From a teacher’s perspective the transmission of stable knowledge is the most important facet of the university and for the student receiving enough of that knowledge to get a well-paying job is the most important. The other pleasures of the university years will be handled elsewhere.

There are, as usual, methods of transcending this “common” definition of the university, which involve thinking of philosophy as a metaphysics of the totality (and not as a specialized discipline), paying closer attention to Eros (which responds to the world with meaning, verve, and wonder), and the sense that the “whole undivided nature of a human being should be expressed in his [sic] achievement” (2). This, too, sounds completely familiar: university learning provides a whole person education with an affective valence and greater attention to the larger currents of existence than a “merely” vocational training can afford.

This structure of the university—with its bundle of binary oppositions but now intensified by more deeply embedded technologies and globalization—is the one in which our curricula, identities and futures in the university have been shaped for a very long time. The essay I am citing is called, appropriately enough, “The Life of Students” and was published by Walter Benjamin in the 1915 edition of Der neue Merkur.1 1915. This is a false conflict—ignoring all sorts of variables of personal dispositions, historical formations, and networks of connections—and we must now all build curricula by thinking more systematically via the logic not of the either-or but of the both-and. Universities are multipliers of possibility.

At the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the tradition of the liberal arts exists in a number of different forms—the Faculties are, for example, currently in the midst of forming new interdisciplinary degrees—but one of the primary sites for continuing this effort is in the Common Core (https://commoncore.hku.hk/), the required series of six transdisciplinary courses required of all undergraduates. In 2012, HKU, along with the other seven publically funded universities in the city, changed from a 3 year degree to a 4 year degree and each university invented an integrated curriculum from the ground up with the mandate that it not be an extension of the major.

In addition to the 160 courses designed for the Core, we have now also begun to build complementary platforms in order to enhance the quality, connectivity, and resonance of learning across multiple scales, one of which is GLADE (Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments), which we launched in July 2017 in order to begin to build an affiliation of projects from like-minded programmes around the world. The first themes that are beginning to take shape are organized, quite loosely, around:

  • Women + Innovation
  • The City as a Learning Site
  • Trans- and Inter-disciplinary Curricula, Courses, and Degrees
  • Virtual Class Exchanges
  • Learning in the Anthropocene

There is a sea of extraordinary projects, good will, and very hard work going on in universities around the world, but regardless of what the ghost of Steve Jobs, Google, a slew of white and green papers, corporate feedback, and all of the CEOs with majors in philosophy say about the value of cross-disciplinary learning, most of our parents and students think, just as in Benjamin’s day, that the University is primarily a site for job training in business, economics, or the professional schools. As we have seen, this is a very old trope, but it is one that continues to spur us to create passageways that open out onto a more expansive experience for our students and colleagues.

Why GLADE, then, in the context of a research comprehensive? Because the Global Liberal Arts, in whatever form, have their own intellectual precision, evocativeness, and connectivity that the world needs. GLADE is an experimental space, a studio space, and space for enhancing thinking, perception, and possibility. I am interested in trying things out, seeing what might work, giving things a go. And all of the work must be lightly held, create its own energies and synergies. No grants, no impact case studies, no membership fees.

We are engaged in serious play, the “ideal game” of a Deleuze or a Mallarmé, not with the laboriousness of international rankings, the misleading quantifications of teacher effectiveness, or the anxieties of hierarchy and promotion. (There will be time; there will be time for all of that.) Instead, throw the dice and see what happens. GLADE highlights programmes that are taking risks, that are implementing trans- and inter-disciplinary connectivity as a means of forming new constellations of teaching and learning opportunities.3

The contemporary university, then, is a site for the invention of new concepts, new habits, new modes of existence. What interests me about the Global Liberal Arts are the operations of conceptual~material transversalities—they are always inseparable, enfolded—that all research universities must address, articulate, and which bear down on all aspects of the university in its many different cultural, political, and economic locales in this age of transition. Their varieties of cosmopolitanism counteracts the retrenchments of the varieties of etho-nationalisms and gives students a multitude of ways to encounter cultural differences as we enter more precipitously into the crises of the Anthropocene, of conflicts, and of a wide-spread derision toward the quest for truthfulness. The Global Liberal Arts, wherever they are found, cross traditional academic boundaries and the even more deeply embedded habits of thought that, from long ago have separated the hand and the head, the practical and the speculative. They help us to think about conjunctions and about how we might best invent a new concept of the university as a transdisciplinary thinking-in-action.


1. Peter Fenves has analyzed this essay at much greater length in order to think about Benjamin’s “entanglement” of the concept, image, and history. As he says:

At the beginning of the first essay he published in a widely read journal, Walter Benjamin makes a series of strongly worded claims that can be understood, in retrospect, as the nucleus of his subsequent reflections on the concept of history. Entitled “The Life of Students,” the essay appeared in two versions during the early years of the First World War. Because the essay is closely related to a series of speeches Benjamin made in conjunction with his election to the presidency of the “free student-body” organization in which he actively participated, it is far more closely associated with a specific social-political program than anything else he ever wrote. After its opening paragraph, much of the essay consists of detailed programmatic directives. The point of examining its opening paragraph is not to establish the continuity of Benjamin’s thought—as if this were a value in itself—but rather to identify its abbreviated but consequential theory of the image. And the point of describing this theory is to assess a more general question: what happens when a concept of history is so thoroughly permeated by a theory of the image that concept and image cannot be disentangled from each other? (182)

2. There is an immense swarm of issues bundled into the phrase “Global Liberal Arts.” For beginning to scratch the surface on “globalization”, its varieties, and its relation to translation across cultural spaces, see François Jullien’s On the Universal: the uniform, the common, and dialogue between cultures. On the emergence of the liberal arts—in various forms—in Asia, see Jung Sheol Chin and Grant Harman “New challenges for higher education: global and Asia-Pacific perspectives” and Simon Marginson “Higher education in East Asia and Singapore: rise of the Confucian Model”. I have written at greater length on these issues in, among other places, the essays listed in the references.

3. In the latest GLADE update, I remarked on the following initiatives, which are only a miniscule sample:

We are continuing our undergraduate Transdisciplinary Research Exchange with Utrecht’s Humanities Honours Programme (https://students.uu.nl/en/hum) and thinking about how to expand it with other partners; the University of Technology in Sydney is well underway with their new degree in Transdisciplinary Innovation (https://www.uts.edu.au/future-students/transdisciplinary-innovation); David Cole at Western Sydney has started a website on resources to help us think and respond to the Anthropocene (https://iiraorg.com/author/anthropoceneinterdisciplinaryresearch/); Brandon Conlon of NYU-Shanghai is soon beginning a blog on Globalization and the Liberal Arts (https://shanghai.nyu.edu/); there are developing interdisciplinary degree options at HKU, the University College Freiburg (https://www.ucf.uni-freiburg.de/liberal-arts-and-sciences), UCL (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/prospective-students/undergraduate/degrees/arts-sciences-basc/) and the University of Birmingham (https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/undergraduate/courses/liberal-arts/liberal-arts-and-sciences.aspx); and a number of us from Amsterdam University College (http://www.auc.nl/) to Duke-Kunshan (https://dukekunshan.edu.cn/) are talking about how we might best use the “city as a learning site.”


Benjamin, Walter. “The Life of Students” <https://libcom.org/library/life-students-walter-benjamin>

Chin, Jung Sheol Chin and Grant Harman. (March 2009). “New challenges for higher education: global and Asia-Pacific perspectives,” Asia Pacific Education Review: 1-13.

Fenves, Peter. (2010). “`Combustion-Focal Point’: Satisfying the Image in Benjamin’s `Life of Students,’” The Yearbook in Comparative Literature 56: 182-188.

Juillen, François. (2014). On the Universal: The uniform, the common, and dialogue between cultures. Cambridge: Polity.

Kochhar-Lindgren, Gray. (forthcoming 2018). “Scintillant@the University of Angelic Invention,” A World Is Born Here: Thinking the Contemporary with Michel Serres. Ed. Rick Dolphijn. London: Bloomsbury.

---. (2017). “Hong Kong’s Laboratory of Liberal Learning: Design-Thinking, Phronēsis, and the Common Core,” The Evolution of the Liberal Arts in a Global Age. Eds. Daniel Araya and Peter Marber. New York: Routledge (2017).

Marginson, Simon. (May 2011). “Higher education in East Asia and Singapore: Rise of the Confucian Model,” Higher Education 61/5 587-611.

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