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Lingnan University Liberal Arts Conference 2009 - "The Coming-of-Age for Liberal Arts Education in 21st Century Asia-Pacific"

19 May 2009 (Tuesday)

Opening Address by Mr Michael V STONE, JP
Secretary-General, University Grants Committee

The Honourable Bernard Chan, Professor Chan, Professor Oxtoby, Professor McCagg, ladies and gentlemen,

A very good morning to you all. It is indeed my pleasure to give a few words at the opening of this excellent occasion, where great minds from different places come together to consider the best form Liberal Arts Education should take in the Asia-Pacific region. As I am eager to listen to our distinguished speakers this morning about their inspiring visions and experience - and I am sure you equally are - I will not stand between you and them for long.

Just as the functions and forms of tertiary education constantly undergo substantial changes in response to evolving social needs, people's understanding - and expectations - towards Liberal Arts Education is seldom static. Albert Einstein said some 80 years ago that,

"The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks."

Indeed, as echoed by one of Winston Churchill's famous quotes, "The first duty of a university is to teach wisdom not trade; character not technicalities." It would be far from desirable if the higher education sector were only to produce professionals spoon-fed with text-book knowledge but not capable of thinking critically and independently.

But in this more and more complex and specialised world of the 21st century, how much of Einstein's and Churchill's wisdom is still relevant and applicable?

The Annapolis Group - an organisation gathering over a hundred of leading American liberal arts colleges - pronounced in its founding statement in 1993 that,

"The purpose of a liberal arts education is to develop the personal and intellectual capacities of an individual by expanding his or her capacity to think clearly and critically, to judge wisely, to act humanely, responsibly and collaboratively, and to communicate effectively; and in pursuing these goals, a liberal arts education offers the most effective preparation in an ever-changing world for a lifetime of meaningful and productive work, commitment to civic and community leadership, and personal growth and happiness."

Apparently time has not eroded, but rather much expanded, the noble spirit of Liberal Arts Education. The underpinning philosophy of Liberal Arts Education still evidently lies upon its distinction from specialist training, and prides over its ability to instil a wide array of transferable competencies that are relevant to many aspects of life and conducive to the development of meaningful careers.

Yet the benefits of Liberal Arts Education can be best materialised only if they have been well understood. We must admit, Liberal Arts Education is a relatively novel concept to most Asian places, so much so that our society, for instance, was not able to agree upon a precise Chinese translation to capture the essence of the term until some years ago. It's getting better, but its merits, vis-à-vis specialist training, may not be readily appreciated by the general public. Especially in the current world of economic challenges, one may be justified to ask, "Yes, Liberal Arts Education provides me with a value system, a standard, a set of ideas. All very well, but does that provide me with a job?" It is thus very important that the values and benefits of Liberal Arts Education be clearly articulated and promoted such that their significance can be better learnt about by employers, parents, and students themselves.

Allow me to mention: In Hong Kong, the University Grants Committee (or the UGC) endeavours to promote a differentiated yet interlocking system of institutions in our public higher education sector, in which the liberal arts philosophy -extolled by Lingnan University - has been playing a distinctive role. With the implementation of recent education reform, which advocates the development of generic intellectual skills in our younger generation for tackling real-life issues, a more generalist approach to tertiary education is increasingly being sought after - and delivered by all our institutions. One of the challenges for Lingnan University will thus be how to continue to distinguish itself from all the other institutions - which are stating to talk the same sort of talk. How as a liberal arts institution show that it genuinely also walks the walk? This is not easy, because the public purse can only recognise to a small degree the higher cost involved in having the very close faculty-student relationship synonymous with a liberal arts education. And regrettably, thus far HK Tycoons have not provide LU with a handsome endowment to supplement what the UGC can provide. Pomona College, I understand, does not suffer this burden.

Clearly, there is always a cultural dimension in every educational strategy. Students from different countries may give varying responses to the same teaching methodology. Likewise, we certainly cannot find a one-size-fits-all model of Liberal Arts Education that can be equally receptive across different cultures and continents in the world. But that does not mean each system has to reinvent the wheel. Many thanks to Lingnan University for putting together this excellent event, where all of us can share our different experiences and perspectives, and together we may be able to discern some best practices and features which will enable quality Liberal Arts Education to flourish in Hong Kong, as well as the greater Asia-Pacific region.

(In passing, let me note - rather tongue in cheek - that I believe some would argue that research postgraduate students are unnecessary, or even out of place (?), in a true liberal arts institution.) I am not too sure where Pomona and Professor Oxtoby stand on this. Perhaps I shall soon find out. And I better not say anymore on the matter if I wish to leave the auditorium in one piece.

Anyway, I am sure that Lingnan will have much to tell about its unique blend of liberal arts traditions from both East and West. With this, I very much look forward to a fruitful and stimulating exchange of ideas. Let me hand the mic over. Thank you very much. ENDS