Approaches are vast and varied. Students at the Chinese University, for example, study Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of the mandatory core curriculum, while undergraduates at the University of Hong Kong have the option of enrolling in classes like “The Press, the Public, and the Public Sphere,” in partial fulfillment of the humanities distribution requirement, one of four “areas of inquiry.”
There are some obstacles. Universities have tried to combine lectures with small discussion-based tutorials, but financial constraints sometimes mean that classes are too large for meaningful interaction between professors and students.
Nor are faculty always on board with the changes. Some prefer to lecture as they always have. Those who do use the new approach find that it can be hard to get students to open up and speak freely when they’re used to listening to lectures, taking notes and regurgitating the answers they think professors want on exams.
As for students, those pursuing traditional professional degrees in engineering, medicine, and law often view the new requirements as a waste of time, a distraction from their progress toward a useful degree. Others call the new approach eye-opening.
The programs have grown quickly, according to a recent analysis by the creator of the inventory, Kara Godwin of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. While the number remains small in most countries compared to traditional degree pathways, the uptick is unmistakable: Almost 60 percent of non-U.S. liberal education programs were started since 1990, and fully 44 percent came into existence just in the past 15 years.
In Asia, beyond Hong Kong, liberal-arts programs have been introduced at institutions ranging from Seoul National University and Japan’s Waseda University to Fudan University in Shanghai. In addition, branch campuses such as NYU-Shanghai, and partnerships such as Yale-NUS College in Singapore, reflect Asia’s growing interest in U.S.-style liberal education.
As the Hong Kong experience shows, the desire to foster economic development is a significant component of the trend. Asian governments “understand that overhauling their higher-education systems is required to sustain economic growth in a postindustrial, knowledge-based global economy,” Richard Levin, the former president of Yale and now CEO of the online learning provider Coursera, has written.
They realize, wrote Levin, that students “who aspire to be leaders in business, medicine, law, government, or academia,” need the ability “to adapt to constantly changing circumstances, confront new facts, and find creative ways to solve problems.”
Measured purely in terms of earning power, considerable evidence shows that students who major in traditional liberal-arts subjects, particularly those who study humanities, make considerably less on average than their counterparts upon graduation (assuming, skeptics might add, that they have jobs at all).