Posted : 2013-01-23 19:25
Updated : 2013-01-23 19:25

Shifting focus to liberal arts

Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the United States, speaks during an interview. / Korea Times photo by Kim Bo-eun

By Kim Bo-eun

The commodification of knowledge is apparent in universities around the world. Tertiary education today is mostly about students paying heavy tuition fees in hope of securing themselves jobs.

Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College in the United States, says that a focus on liberal arts education is crucial to countering this and enabling students to develop essential skills.

"In the 21st century, college graduates will have to learn how to create knowledge, instead of simply applying it. And therefore, universities should incorporate liberal arts education which focuses on developing these skills," said Chopp in an interview with The Korea Times on Jan. 16.

Chopp has been speaking at conferences on liberal arts education, to promote it not only in the U.S. but also around the world.

She was in Seoul from Jan. 15 to 17 to meet with alumni and prospective students to Swarthmore College.

The following is an exchange of questions and answers with Rebecca Chopp about her observations and objectives:

Q: What sets liberal arts colleges apart from other universities?

A: They are small in scale, which enables a low student-to-faculty ratio. This means they have many more opportunities to work with faculty members such as attending faculty seminars or working together on research projects.

Another distinctive aspect is that many of the schools are residential. This creates an educational environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Students are able to constantly interact and engage with one another.

The schools typically offer a two-year exploration of liberal arts or general knowledge before students are required to declare a major. Although many of these colleges have adopted professional majors, they put a heavy emphasis on liberal arts education.

Q: Critiques point out that liberal arts studies are focused on theory and are therefore impractical. They also emphasize the necessity of job training before graduating to find jobs. Aren't liberal arts colleges omitting an important part of college education?

A: According to a survey we conducted on international companies, what employers require is not necessarily professional knowledge.

Survey results indicated that 100 percent of employers rated teamwork, a strong work ethic, and the ability to learn quickly as essential. Another 93 percent rated verbal communication skills, problem solving skills, and adaptability to a new environment as very important. Eighty percent rated analytical skills, written communication skills, and leadership as useful qualities.

These are skills developed through liberal arts education. Liberal arts skills are what I believe are the most practical skills. The divide between theoretical liberal arts and practical jobs is disappearing today.

As for the 73.4 percent of employers that indicated previous internship or work experience as important, Swarthmore College has students doing internships during breaks. When graduating, 96 percent of the students find jobs right away.

Q: How does liberal arts education help develop these skills? What types of courses or assignments, in particular, could aid students in obtaining such skills?

A: Two faculty members are teaching a course on environmental issues in China. In this course, students explore economics, environmental studies and governmental policies of the past as well as of the contemporary period. They also go to China to work with the Beijing University of Agriculture to do collaborative research projects on specific issues concerning government policy in China.

The courses taught draw from a variety of disciplines in addressing a particular issue and a lot of team teaching is involved. This encourages students to think critically and creatively, as well as cooperate with others.

Q: Are there any studies of life satisfaction or success or liberal arts college graduates?

A: Graduates of residential liberal arts colleges give their college experience higher marks than do graduates of private or public universities, according to a national study commissioned by the Annapolis Group, a consortium of America's leading liberal arts colleges.

This study shows that graduates feel they are better prepared than most for life, for the job market, for graduate and professional schools, for pursuing a rewarding career, and for the challenges they know they will face in the future.

Q: How did you become an advocate of liberal arts? Why did you decide to become the president of a liberal arts college instead of serving key administrative positions at renowned research universities?

A: I was a first-generation college student ― no one in my family had received college education. I initially went to Kansas State University, but I didn't like it. I felt like I was lost, and couldn't figure out what I wanted to do. So I dropped out and went to a small liberal arts college in Kansas.

It was transformative. The faculty showed interest in me, and I took part in various activities such as joining the debate team. I then discovered speaking in front of people is something I am good at, something I couldn't have imagined if I hadn't had the opportunity to try. Such a personal experience instilled a belief in liberal arts colleges.

Q: What kind of advice do you have for universities in Korea, which are focused on delivering practical knowledge and skills?

A: In the 21st century, college graduates will have to learn how to learn and create knowledge, not simply apply it. Therefore universities will have to incorporate liberal arts which focus on developing these skills.

A broad education in the humanities, arts, social sciences and sciences will enable one to obtain a broader knowledge of the world. When you are forced into a situation where you have to study something you know nothing about, it trains your mind. Students therefore learn how to investigate new ideas and solve problems.

Through athletics students will acquire leadership skills, discipline and learn about teamwork. And through art students will learn about creativity, communication skills, how to express yourself. The focus on educating the whole person will not only inform, but form the students as well.

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