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Liberal Arts Education: Challenges and Opportunities in the Post-COVID Era [1] ___

---It is well known that liberal arts education (LAE) is not only about having a broad-based curriculum (often called general education), but also about how the students learn, as emphasized in Detweiler (2021) and other research. [1] Furthermore, LAE is not just about the academic curriculum, but also about soft skills that in large part are developed outside the classrooms and even away from our campuses.  

In terms of teaching methodology, LAE adopts the small class teaching mode to ensure plenty of personal interactions between teachers and students within and beyond the classroom. In addition to training the intellectual mind of students, LAE aims to promote whole-person development, and to equip students with generic transferable skills such as communication, thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, global awareness, social responsibility. To do these jobs well, it needs a full residential campus, rich experiential learning programmes, ample international exchange, and social engagement opportunities.    

A 2017 report by McKinsey, Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation, takes into account the prediction that “an increasing percentage of activities that workers will do in the future will be in categories such as managing and leading other people and interacting with others, which require skills such as social and emotional sensing and reasoning, and applying creativity and collaborative problem-solving.” The report advises that to get the required skills and desirable attributes for the 21st Century workplace, college students should combine a foundation of the best LAE with strong professional and technical skill training.  

Some popular writers have counter-posed STEM against liberal arts, which does not make sense because traditional liberal arts subjects include both natural sciences and mathematics, and some liberal arts colleges in the US with a long history and strong reputation have embraced engineering.[2] From the point of view of skills that are important in the workplace, neither is it meaningful to counter-pose STEM against humanities and social sciences. Even for technology companies, knowledge in arts, humanities and social sciences and knowledge in STEM are equally important for employees to work together effectively and to maximize their complementarity and synergy. For examples and arguments for their complementarity, I would simply refer the interested reader to Scott Hartley’s 2018 book, The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, and George Anders’ 2017 book, You Can Do Anything: TheSurprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. Moreover, these books illustrate that the combination of knowledge in technology and humanities and social sciences can be achieved either with a broad-based curriculum design at the undergraduate level or with students completing undergraduate and postgraduate studies to acquire both sets of knowledge, skills and perspective. This means while liberal arts colleges and universities may continue to see undergraduate education as their mainstay, it may be advisable for them to also offer postgraduate programs based on the strengths of their faculty members.  

Now let’s look into the future and ponder what other things we must do in addition to the usualimplementation of LAE in order to meet the future challenges.  

First, looking beyond the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, liberal arts institutions would need to make greater use of education technology to improve the learning outcomes and learning experiences of students. I believe the potential areas of application are huge because while our faculty’s personal touch and friendship with students cannot be replaced by machines, there are many things that technology in general and machines in particular can do where our faculty would find difficult, if not impossible, to do without the aid of technology. Blended courses may become a fixture of future LAE. Moreover, assisting and augmenting learning with technologies is not confined to academicknowledge and skills, but also covers the full suite of co-curriculum and extra-curriculum activities for students’ whole-person development  

Secondly, since true LAE is in fact more expensive to implement than other forms of higher education, it would be great to use education technology to reduce thecost of LAE provision without sacrificing the quality of student learning. Cost control may be necessary because traditional liberal arts colleges and universities might be under threat from low cost operators which are successful in adopting education technology to reduce cost and enhance quality. Even if financial viability is not an issue, success in reducing costs and enhancing quality with the adoption of education technology means that the same budget would allow a larger number of students to enjoy the benefits of LAE.  

Thirdly, if a large number of the workforce under the threat of automation and AI need to goback to college to retool themselves, or if the college-age cohort in the future somehow cannot attend university full-time, perhaps as a consequence of the economic depression caused by the Covid shock, then there may be a need to deploy appropriate education technology to meet the learning needs of these two groups of students. What would be needed include not only blended coursesmentioned earlier, but also planning and management of co-curriculum and extra-curriculum activities for part-time students who do not live in the dormitories.  

Fourthly, the liberal arts institutions may have to be highly adaptable in order to survive the rapid changes that are caused by future disruptions to the higher education sector.  


[1] This article in based on President Cheng's paper presented at the Annual Presidents’ Forum of the Alliance of Asian Liberal Arts Universities held on 12 November 2020.  

[2] For example, Harvey Mudd is a well-known liberal arts college that specializes in science and engineering programmes. The 10-year ROI of its engineering and science programmes is ranked No. 1 (even higher than MIT) in the US by PayScale’s 2018 College ROI Report.    

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