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Liberal Arts Education in the Age of STEM *___

---North America and Europe, shaken by economic globalisation and migration and the fall-out from growing income inequality, are struggling to retain workable and legitimate political systems, and to maintain open societies and the Enlightenment regime of rational public discourse founded on an ethics of truth. Science has become a political target in the United States. Universities fear restrictions on the inward mobility of faculty and students and a populist backlash in which they are stigmatised as both globally cosmopolitan and socially elite, which are seen as being the same thing.

In the populist backlash against cosmopolitan urban elites, real and imagined, higher education is a primary indicator of political polarisation. People with no tertiary qualifications voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and Brexit in the UK in 2016. People with degrees voted overwhelmingly for Hilary Clinton and to stay in the EU. Young people in the UK, the most educated generation in UK history, voted overwhelmingly for the EU. International educational mobility is also under increasing pressure. Last November the Danish minister of education announced that cross-border student numbers would be cut back because foreigners took places from local students. The Netherlands minister is making similar noises. More seriously perhaps, the knowledge-based mission of universities is also in some question. In the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK university ‘experts’ were derided by one leader of the Brexit campaign, who is a former minister of education. In the US the science of climate change—indeed, a scientific world—has long been under sustained political attack and these attacks are now given comfort from the White House.

Most serious is the deconstruction of public discourse, which calls into question the Kantian nexus between knowledge, truth, public virtue and public interest, and the continuing improvement of societies, ideas integral to higher education. In last year’s American election, the hit rate on fake news items in social media equalled the hit rate on standard journalism. In the crucial last month fake news clearly outpolled real news. This is big trouble.

East Asia, regardless of the political system, shares the challenge of maintaining societies that are stable and open, internally and externally, at a time when a more bounded form of nationalism is gaining ground, and open civil societies are in question when they turn from markets to politics. However, the state of universities in the East is healthy overall. China continues its rapid rise in science and higher education. Higher education will be twice boosted, by the Double World-Class project and One Belt One Road. Universities are also flourishing in Singapore, especially, and South Korea, and remain strong in Japan and Taiwan despite underfunding and the administrative burdens of corporatisation.

It’s the Age of STEM in higher education, especially in East Asia, and especially in the applied sciences in engineering, computing, medicine and related areas. In China the total annual output of published science has just passed that of the United States. East Asia now out-performs the rest of the world in research in published high citation research mathematics and computing, with Tsinghua University in China the world number one and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore at number two. In Physical Sciences STEM as a whole, when engineering, physics and chemistry are joined to maths and computing research, Tsinghua just shades MIT as the top producer of high citation papers. The US has four of the top seven but China six of the top 15, and Singapore two, compared to US five.

Yet STEM is not the answer to all our problems – and arguably, is the cause of some ,or at least the condition of their appearance. Consider this. In the form of social media, the STEM-educated leaders of the tech sector have developed a new form of public space which is not just contaminated by but captured by a populist politics that radically undermines the values of higher education, and validated and creative knowledge, and deepens the divide between universities and the public interest.

This in turn suggests two strategic propositions. First, higher education is part of the solution to Trumpism. By continuing to expand the rate of participation in higher education, by making the sector less elite in social terms, we eat into the electoral basis for anti-intellectual populism of the Trump kind. It was H.G. Wells who first said that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. That’s looking more true now—but if mass higher education is to lift the level of public literacy, then the level and engagement in mass education must be sufficient to the task. They must be good enough. This is not the case in every country. And MOOCS are no substitute for face-to-face classes in this regard.

Second, and this is a caveat to the first point, if higher education is so dominated by applied STEM-based disciplines and business studies that it largely excludes the critical social sciences and humanities, or if it is so occupied by generic programmes, and social networks building that it excludes foundational cognitive development in fields of knowledge, it is unable to sustain the Kantian-Humboldtian nexus between knowledge, truth, public virtue, public interest and social improvement. This suggests that the liberal disciplines, liberal arts and science programmes, are the missing piece of the puzzle.

This domain is a confused one, in which deep discipline-based study jostles for attention with ‘general education’ without much gravitas whose main virtue is breadth and even ‘employability’ programmes confined to generic skills and how-to-design-a resume. In response to this state of confusion, and the undue domination of STEM disciplines, especially but not only in East Asia, let me make five points about liberal arts and sciences:

  1. In the first instance liberal studies is about disciplines not the dissolution of knowledge boundaries. Only a deep engagement in particular fields—philosophy, physics, genetics, psychology, history, languages etc—enables cross-disciplinary work.
  2. Most general education programmes in the early years lack status with students. Faculty must work very hard to ensure depth in one year or 18-month liberal programmes. Majors really need three years plus. The bona fide liberal arts and science programme is a full degree course, whether in a stand-alone institution or a feeder faculty in a research-intensive university, and ideally is preliminary to a professional or specialist programme at Masters level. The first degree colleges attached to the Dutch research universities, and the US liberal arts colleges, are both examples of this curriculum structure, as is the Melbourne Model in Australia.
  3. The role of choice can be over-played. In the preparation of rounded citizens, some disciplines might be considered primary. We would hope that all students would have knowledge of history, for example. Knowledge of a second language is important. Economics and psychology are each powerful fields of knowledge that permeate modern life. Engagement with mathematics seems highly desirable, as does some knowledge of both the physical and biological sciences. It should not be possible to opt out of, say, mathematics or languages simply because they are difficult.
  4. There’s not enough liberal arts and science education in total, taking all forms of it together. Specific liberal arts are a relatively small field of elite preparation, and one that is often uncoupled from science. There’s not enough, also, of those more attenuated, less formative liberal programmes that fade into general education. And even if general education with some liberal studies is actually growing in weight within higher education at world level (unlike liberal arts college enrolments), this general education remains a minority activity, and often has insufficient gravitas in the eyes of those who take it.
  5. Liberal programmes have an especially crucial role in building cultural capabilities and cross-cultural understanding and dialogue.

Let me expand on this last point. In the liberal disciplines, especially the often nationally-specific social sciences and humanities, there is wide potential for cultural and educational East-West hybrids, what Ulrich Beck calls the ending of the “global other”. Many people are thinking about this, and is an area where Chinese civilization, including the liberal disciplines in the Chinese cultural zone, has a special role in taking the world forward.

Rui Yang in Hong Kong suggests that in China’s universities, which have been strongly impacted by European and especially American modernization, tradition has partly blocked the adoption of certain strengths of the Western form such as curiosity-driven inquiry. A deeper synthesis between East and West is needed, to ground a distinctively Chinese form of modernization, of continuous transformation, in education and science. This kind of synthesis comes more naturally to Eastern than Western thought. East thinking tends to be more holistic. Western disciplines are riven between competing claims for holistic explanations, explanations that only cover part of the real. Western thought is less good at multiplicity and hybridity. As Rui Yang puts it, Chinese thinkers often “appreciate opposing poles as a driving force and see opportunities in contradiction.”

Liberal arts and science education has the potential to play a catalytic role in what might be the great strategic problem of our times, which is the need for a deeper reconciliation between American-European and Chinese ways of thinking, living and governing. But if the liberal arts and sciences are to move from the margins and play a more strategic role on a larger scale they have three challenges to overcome.

The first challenge is the preponderance of STEM: the lack of balance between the disciplines in terms of social esteem, policy, funding and often in university provision. Here the difference between a liberal arts approach, and a liberal arts and sciences approach, is vital. The arts and humanities cannot afford to become locked into opposition to all fields of science. The ideal structure is for liberal arts and science first degrees to become foundational to STEM-based professional programmes such as medicine and engineering. This provides more depth under the professional degree.

The second and most immediately difficult challenge is the stranglehold of human capital theory in policy and the public mind. The idea that there is—or should be—a simple linear relationship between degree and work downgrades the liberal disciplines. Yet we know that many graduates work in jobs other than those for which they were trained. Specialist positions are often filled by non-specialist graduates, or the wrong kind of specialist. Other positions are generic ones. And as many speakers here have said, jobs are changing rapidly and radically. We also know that students have a less instrumental take on higher education than often expected. In the UK a recent survey of 9000 students at 123 institutions found that only 34 per cent of respondents believed universities should be accountable for poor graduate employment but 68 per cent believed they should be accountable for poor teaching. When asked which factors best demonstrate a university has excellent teaching, graduate employment came last out of the seven choices in the survey

The third and hardest challenge is the way that in many countries the liberal curriculum has been confined to the education of the social elite. Not only are the benefits of liberal arts education denied to the mass of students, liberal education becomes trapped as a permanently poor relation within elite education. A related problem is the positioning of programmes for educating global citizens as solely elite tracks, though much global mobility is not privileged. Ultimately the best way out of the trap is to establish liberal arts and science programmes as a normal kind of first degree, in mass educational institutions as well as elite universities and colleges, followed by the professional-vocational Masters.

* Part of this blog began life in a speech to the conference on ‘Liberal Arts Education in an Asian context: Achievements, challenges and perspectives’, Lingnan University, Hong Kong SAR, 20-21 November 2017.

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