Should Asian Universities Offer The US-style Liberal Arts Degree?

Asia is starting to embrace the American style liberal arts education, writes Daniel Soo, a third-year student from Yale-NUS, Singapore’s first liberal arts college.

AsianScientist (Jun. 27, 2016) – “Wow, liberal arts… So what do you study there? Painting? Drawing?”

I’ve been asked the above question so often that I’ve now come to expect it. Three years ago, I was among the first cohort of students joining Singapore’s first liberal arts college, Yale-NUS College, co-founded by Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I suppose I should have expected such misconceptions. After all, the liberal arts is a concept more familiar to the US than Asia.

In recent decades, however, the liberal arts degree has only become increasingly popular on our side of the Pacific. Besides Singapore, universities in Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan are also making major investments in liberal arts education as an alternative to their highly specialized degrees.

The Godwin Global Liberal Education Inventory, developed in 2014 by Kara Godwin of Boston College as part of her PhD dissertation, is a database of 183 non-US liberal arts degree programs. At 37 percent, Asia accounted for the highest proportion of liberal arts colleges outside the US.

The liberal arts through history

The liberal arts goes back to the the time of ancient Romans. ‘Arts’ is derived from the Latin word artes, meaning a systematic body of knowledge. ‘Liberal,’ on the other hand, stems from the Latin word liberalis, which means ‘appropriate for free men.’ The liberal arts curriculum—originally comprising of grammar, rhetoric and logic—was considered to be crucial for the civic duty and flourishing of any free citizen.

Today, the scope of a liberal arts education has expanded to include all manner of subjects from the humanities, social sciences and sciences. Not all liberal arts curriculums look the same, but all of them encourage small class sizes and a broad exploration across diverse academic disciplines. As a Yale-NUS student, my declared major constitutes but a third of my courses. This flexibility has allowed me to write poetry, code for statistical models, edit the genes of flies and even more still—all beyond my major in psychology.

Despite its evolution through the centuries, the underlying motivation for a liberal arts education has remained largely similar: to develop an individual—not just for work, but for a fruitful, well-lived life.

Pericles Lewis, the founding president of Yale-NUS College, shares with Asian Scientist Magazine, “[The broad-based foundation of a liberal arts education] prepares students with good intellectual habits, such as critical thinking, cultural sensitivity and adaptability, and imparts skills that contribute to their employability, and which are just as important to their long-term leadership potential.”

The marketability of a liberal arts degree

To many, the liberal arts movement in Asia might seem unusual. While Asia is highly diverse, professional degrees have traditionally been valued at a premium—often due to the higher earning power and job stability that comes along with being a doctor, lawyer or engineer. The liberal arts curriculum, on the other hand, is distinctly non-vocational; students thus graduate with general degrees. As a result, some people worry that liberal arts graduates will eventually turn out less sought after and less well paid.

While comprehensive statistics have yet to be collected in Asia, studies in the US have shown how such fears may indeed be valid. In 2014, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released a report comparing the incomes of liberal arts degree holders against the incomes of professional and pre-professional degree holders. During the years directly after college, liberal arts graduates earned roughly US$5,000 less per annum as compared to their professional and pre-professional peers.

This, however, is only part of the story. When the same report compared salaries between both groups at peak earning ages (between 56 to 60), it was found that liberal arts graduates from the humanities and social sciences earned around US$2,000 more per annum than those who had specialized early.

Liberal arts graduates who majored in science or math showed an even more drastic increase in earning power, with an average annual income that was US$22,000 higher than that of their professional degree contemporaries. Such a reversal can be explained by how half of liberal arts graduates in science and math eventually go on to do advanced degrees, as opposed to only a third of professional degree holders. NEXT PAGE >>>

Daniel is a psychology major at Yale-NUS college. When he was seven he discovered the ancient tusk of a wooly mammoth. After those four inches of backbreaking excavation, he had wasted no time in telling everyone else at the playground about his precious find—until his elder brother cruelly revealed the serial numbers on the standard-issue PVC pipe. He spends the rest of his days trying to deal with this traumatic setback with tai chi, writing, and listening to Carole King.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist