What is the ideal education?

| - Tim Lake |

The Rise of Global Liberal Arts

The Liberal Arts is a form of education commonly associated with American colleges, but the roots of liberal arts education go back at least 2,000 years to Ancient Rome. It is often considered to be the ideal education.




The Ancient Beginnings of Liberal Arts

The great Roman senator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was renowned for his skills as a public speaker, believed that to be a good public speaker you had to have a well-rounded education. In the ancient world, this meant at the very least grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (Cicero would add philosophy, history, art, and politics as well). These seven subjects formed the core curriculum of early universities in Medieval Europe as well.



In Asia too, a liberal arts style of education has a long history. The Chinese philosopher Confucius studied Rites, Music, Archery, Chariotry, Calligraphy, and Mathematics; all things that would later become part of Confucian ideas about education in China. Similarly, by the year AD 670, the great Nalanda University in India was a centre of intercultural scholarship and education centuries before Universities emerged in Europe, and taught logic, grammar, medicine, linguistics, and more alongside Buddhist Theology.



These days, liberal arts education encompasses a much wider range of subjects in four main areas: natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. But, the aim remains the same: to provide students with a well-rounded education, a basic understanding of how the world works, and the skill to operate in it.



Specialisation and the Liberal Arts

The trend towards professional degrees and specialisation has reduced interest in liberal arts education in recent years. However, a liberal arts education is perhaps more relevant in the 21st Century than it ever has been. Specialisation is good and even necessary, but without a context and a broader understanding of diverse cultures and histories, it risks short-sightedness and isolation.



People who want to engage in global issues and lead in solving global problems need to have the broad grounding that liberal arts education gives. Liberal arts education not only provides a deep knowledge base, but it also encourages communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. It focuses on developing the student as a person, helping them understand themselves in a global context and to discover and develop their potential.



This marks a shift from the emphasis on specialisation to a form of education that gives students the ability to negotiate and thrive in the changing workplace. With rapidly changing and emerging technologies set to disrupt our lives over the coming decades, people with the wisdom to know how best to use these technologies, ask difficult questions, and collaborate across borders to find solutions, will be in high demand.



Global Liberal Arts in Japan

In the last few years in Japan, several universities have launched what they call a “Global Liberal Arts Program”, notably Rikkyo University in Ikebukuro. This is a modified liberal arts program, taking in a broad range of topics across three main areas, humanities, citizenship, and business. The course has a global outlook and so is taught exclusively in English and includes a study abroad component. Several other universities in Japan and overseas - SOAS in London and Yale-NUS, for example - run similar courses.



The global outlook, and the fact that the courses in Japan are typically taught in English, reflect the realisation that we must work across national boundaries not just in business, but also in politics, the arts, and sustainability. Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, adapting to climate change, and battling pandemics, all require people who can work outside of their home cultures, embrace a global perspective, and make productive connections across borders. This is no longer optional, it is a requirement for future mutual thriving. Global Liberal Arts Programs understand that need.



As the current global lingua franca, being able to speak, read, and write English is necessary to take part in the global community. So is Intercultural Communicative Competence. A student needs to understand global issues and trends and be able to talk about them effectively with other users of English from other cultural backgrounds. English is a gateway. Through English, we can meet the world, and together we can do something to make it better.