China’s Liberal Arts Colleges: Going Against the Mainstream
Charlene Zheyan Ni is Ministry of Tofu’s contributor. This video blog post of hers also appears on LinkAsia.
Liberal arts education in China is still in its experimental stage, and a majority of college students are pursuing more practical science degrees. While top universities in China have embraced the value of this teaching method since 2005, it’s still hard for employers to accept liberal arts graduates. Employers seem to believe liberal arts programs are not necessarily related to a professional or vocational path; graduates who are accustomed to flying high in the sky of abstract knowledge and theories, may end up crash landing in the real, practical and material world.
The contrast between say, a Mechanical Engineering major’s quest for marketable skills versus an Ancient Chinese Literature major’s is in how either spends a term… “It took us a whole semester to finish only the first hundred years in Zuo Zhuan,” said Ma Zhiyi, a rising sophomore at Sun Yat-Sen University’s Boya School.
Zuo Zhuan is a classical narrative work written about 2300 years ago covering the Chinese history from 722 to 468 BC
Students are also driven to rack up certificates because their education is failing to prepare them for a career. In the past decade, undergraduate enrollment has increased by 30 percent. This growth was aimed at reviving China’s economy. But the costs for students today are overcrowded classrooms and fewer resources, and debt.
As the majority suffers under the pressure of job-hunting, some students like Wan Xinyan, a 21-year-old graduate from Beijing Foreign Language University wish “that higher education can be more diverse.”
Rapid growth isn’t the only reason for the lack of breadth in China’s curriculum, the system itself is outdated.
The Ke Jiao Xing Guo curriculum was first implemented in 1978. It focuses on science and technology education (Ke Jiao，科教) to improve the quality of the labor force and revive the economy; thus bringing prosperity to the whole country (Xing Guo, 兴国).
Recent efforts to move away from those goals resulted in the establishment of liberal arts colleges like Peking University’s Yuanpei College, and Sun Yat-Sen University’s Boya School.
“I did not want to dive into science immediately,” says Wu Dingyi, a rising junior who opted to take social science classes at Yuanpei College.
Boya School’s core curriculum emphasizes Chinese and Western classical reading and encourages independent thinking and free discussion.
Ma Zhiyi developed an appreciation for archaeology during a prerequisite class she took as a freshman at Boya School. “If I had not come to Boya, I would have never taken an archaeology course.” She went on to say that it has become one of her favorite subjects.
Ma Zhiyi is a rising sophomore at Peking University’s Boya School
However, there is a high opportunity cost of going against the mainstream. Liberal arts college graduates in China seem to have trouble finding jobs. This summer, Boya School graduated its very first class of 30 liberal arts students. Only four have launched their careers. One is working for an NGO.
Cai Shuying, is one of the recent Boya graduates to land a job straight out of school, but struggled to justify her major. “It often takes me a while to explain to employers what a liberal arts education is” she says.
Boya’s undergrads, like Ma Zhiyi, are engaged in reading Chinese classics and free learning. For now, they’re not worried about finding jobs, and they refuse to think about their career in a conventional way.
Ma said, “I think about the purpose of living. Why should I live? If I can’t work that idea out, it would be hard for me even if I got a job”.