President Ohle's Remarks at United International College, Zhuhai, China

Fourth Annual Minnesota Private College Council Presidential Lecture Series

November 17, 2010

Professor Ng, Professor Kwok, Professor Wilkinson, Professor Guanju, President Bruss, and President Cerkvenik, I greet you on behalf of the faculty, staff, and students of Gustavus Adolphus College. It is my honor to be part of this, the Fourth Annual Minnesota Private College Council Presidential Lecture Series. I would like to also greet The Honorable Judge Paul Magnuson, a distinguished Gustavus Adolphus College alumnus, serving as a Senior Fulbright Fellow here at UIC this month, and the faculty, students, and other honored guests. My speech is titled “ The Importance of Internationalism in the Liberal Arts”.

Earlier today, we had an opportunity to hear from students who are currently studying at UIC from colleges in Minnesota and from UIC students who have studied in Minnesota as well as those graduates from our Minnesota colleges who are serving as teaching assistants at UIC this year. One of the UIC students, Sutchie Ye, who was a 2010 spring exchange student at Gustavus, commented that her experience studying in the United States helped her understand better the importance of freedom, confidence, courtesy, responsibility, and maturity. And, we heard from a current Gustavus student studying this semester at UIC, Allie Birdseye, who talked about how important the cultural experience at UIC has been for her. We are pleased that at Gustavus this fall we have two UIC students studying on our campus. In fact, my wife and I met with them and three other Chinese students who are studying at Gustavus this fall at our home this past week. The UIC students at Gustavus and all of the students who spoke to us this morning clearly are excited about the partnership UIC has developed with colleges from Minnesota who are part of the consortium.

As I begin, let me share a little background regarding what brings me to this point in my life and this opportunity to speak at United International College. This is my third year as President of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. I am fortunate to serve as the 16th president in the College’s 149-year history. Prior to accepting the position at Gustavus, I served for ten years as President of another liberal arts college in the United States, in the state of Iowa. This is my 41st year as a faculty member or administrator at a liberal arts college. My entire career has been spent teaching and working at liberal arts colleges rooted in the Judaeo Christian tradition. After my baccalaureate degree, I studied for the ministry at a Lutheran Theological Seminary, and had the opportunity to serve three Lutheran congregations, while completing my graduate work in higher education at a large research university.

I am reminded daily that we live in a world that is increasingly complex and that relationships developed, whether person to person or between countries, are critically important. I believe the consortium we have established will help break down barriers, as students from the United States come here to UIC to study and vice versa.

To be sure, I have found over the years that the only way we can fully understand cultures, other than our own, is through education. I have been a proponent of educational partnerships at every institution I have served, and I was extremely pleased to learn, when I became president of Gustavus, of the consortium that had been established by the Minnesota Private College Council and UIC. Educational partnerships will be invaluable, to prepare world leaders, as we face the challenges before us. As we all know, the future will undoubtedly impose many new problems for peoples of all cultures, but education will be a way for us to work together toward common goals. Without a doubt, international education and the understanding of languages, can be a major factor in preparing the leaders of tomorrow to deal with both the ongoing and new problems we will confront.

As we think together about Internationalism in the Liberal Arts, I want to remind us why we believe a liberal arts education is valuable. It enables our students to be well rounded and engaged, not only in their own work, but in their future, and, in this case, the future of our two countries. It is imperative that we work together to make this a better world in which to live.

Historically, liberal arts education stands in close relationship with what has been called the ancient medieval and renaissance practices of the arts. It was not until about the time of Augustine in the fifteenth century that the educational system was systematized. Education was traditionally divided into two sub-categories, the study of things, and the study of words. The study of things included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, whereas, the study of words included grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Today, the fundamental function of education in the world is to educate the “free or liberal citizen.”

In modern times, liberal or liberal arts education has come to characterize both the essence and the liberalizing effect of education. The reason we use the terms free or liberal in discussing an educated person is that as educators we believe a liberal arts education enables its students to think freely and conduct critical examination of societal norms and traditions. It reflects two features essential to liberal arts education, namely, independent and critical thinking.

Many believe in the United States that the most radical development of the educational system took place during the nineteenth century. Likewise, many important educational policies were enacted in China during that same period. One important factor behind the growth of colleges in the U.S. during that period was that they often evolved out of a type of school called a “normal school.” Normal schools were teacher training schools, modeled after educational institutions in Europe, and they grew quickly, in number, in the United States during the 1800s and early 1900s. Normal schools were often two-year schools, but as the need for education increased toward the later part of the nineteenth century, normal schools in the United States broadened their curriculum and extended their period of training. In this way, they managed to enhance the skills of educated men and women.

Since those early years in the United States, education has developed a much broader base. It now stands in contrast to those schools that only looked at academic specialization. However, this contrast caused further controversy regarding the function of higher education. Part of this controversy in the United States was expressed through the debates between the modernists and the reactionaries at the end of the nineteenth century. The modernists thought that the rapid development of science demanded a high degree of academic specialization, and for this reason, they promoted a system with more elective courses within our colleges and universities. Contrary to this, the reactionaries argued for prescribed courses of studies for all, which is what we today know as the core curriculum of liberal arts colleges. It is interesting to note that those traditionalists defended the fixed curriculum by defining the function of normal education as a means to develop both the “mental and moral faculties” of the human mind.

Today liberal arts education in the United States must be understood with respect to the conflict between traditionalists and modernists, and with respect to the tensions between systems of free elective courses and systems characterized by fixed curricula. To be sure, the educational system in the U.S. has continued to evolve. That, in fact, encourages me about our partnership. We, too, will continue to evolve how we go about making the consortium meaningful to the schools in the United States and to UIC.

As you know in the United States and around the world, there has not been a consensus as to which system should prevail. Core curriculum is the traditional ideal of liberal arts education, but in the face of the development of the modern society, this educational model has been forced to compromise its own ideals and allow various amounts of elective courses to enter its curricula. This is the reason why some believe that modern liberal arts education has no unified model for its curriculum, and why some educators claim that liberal arts education is losing its identity.

In order to understand modern liberal arts education, it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that it continuously changes its shape, and that it does so accordingly not only to demands of students, but to ideology, to professional demands in working life, and to society’s demand for either scientific progress or for common value systems or cultural identity. This, I am observing, is similar to China.

Today, a contemporary liberal arts education generally awards majors within the arts and sciences, within the natural and social sciences, and within the humanities. Liberal arts colleges provide students with a curriculum intended to expand their knowledge beyond their major course of study.

Another feature of liberal arts education, and one closely connected to the expansion of knowledge, is that it aims at generating well-informed students, students that are prepared both for everyday life and for several different careers.

In fact, liberal arts education has often been described as an education that teaches students how to conduct their lives, rather than prepare them for a specific profession.

As we all know, what distinguishes liberal arts education from a purely vocational training is that liberal arts education, even if it offers vocational specialization, always puts great emphasis on the broadness of the education.

Instead of concluding that liberal arts education stands in some principle opposition to professional training, I feel we should perhaps say that liberal arts education is, in fact, directed toward improving and enhancing professional life. Through its emphasis on general knowledge and individual development, it also facilitates more mature choices about several professional careers, other than just simply pure vocational training.

One of the most common arguments in support of a liberal arts education, as I mentioned, is that it opens up for our students several career choices rather than just one. It must also be emphasized that the pre-professional function of liberal arts colleges is a very important factor. Liberal arts institutions often ensure students access to prestigious professional graduate schools, like law schools and medical schools. This is one important reason why people in the United States are, in fact, prepared to pay for the often very expensive tuition of private liberal arts colleges. I believe that a liberal arts education is more in demand today in the United States than ever before. Our colleges and universities have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of our students. I feel the same is happening in China.

For me, this short history and understanding of the liberal arts colleges in the United States is the reason I stand before you today. Forty-five plus years ago, I did not know what a college education would do for me. I was a first generation student and changed my major four times while in college. I believe our partnership will help students like me find direction. In fact, I want to compliment what we are doing and how we can work together to help students here in China, as well as in the United States and around the world, understand a broader and richer world and the importance of our global society.

I am sure you have heard many lectures over the past few years regarding liberal arts education, but I want to now tie together not only the understanding of what a liberal arts education is, but why it is important to UIC and to the U.S. colleges in our consortium. When our faculty and students come here to teach and to study, they have a much broader prospective of the world and both the Chinese and U.S. cultures. Likewise, when your students and faculty come to the United States and study and teach on our campuses, I know they have similar experiences and begin to understand the educational systems much better in both of our countries.

The traditional liberal arts is often called an American tradition, and it is true that it is widely practiced in the United States. However, its origins are broader, going back to classical antiquity, as I explained earlier, through which it was transmitted to Europe and now to Asia. There is no definitive definition of liberal arts education, but it is generally held that it involves critical thinking, defined as the capacity to examine questions from diverse disciplinary, philosophical, or practical points of view, a style of teaching that seeks to elicit curiosity and an active search for knowledge on the part of our students. There is a natural relationship between liberal arts education, with its encouragement of tolerance, openness, and free exchange of ideas.

As I work to understand the traditions at the institution I serve as President, I am reminded that Gustavus was founded by Swedish immigrants who traveled to the United States in the mid-1800s and started similar colleges. There are three of those colleges that exist today that continue to serve students, providing strong liberal arts education at the undergraduate level. We have all made changes in our curriculum, but we have kept our focus on developing a broad-based educational program that pushes us beyond our boundaries.

As we all know, internationalism or globalism in education is often tied to liberal arts education and can be defined quite often in three different types. First, are the programs created by liberal arts institutions in the United States, as a means of offering international experiences for their students, and we all have study-abroad programs. Second, are those programs at liberal arts institutions abroad, founded either by Americans or by individuals or groups from those countries and usually cater to local or regional students. And, third, are those programs that are partnerships like the one we have between the Minnesota Private College Council and UIC. International partnerships like ours must foster and spread liberal arts education around the world as a tool of educating young men and women in their own countries, and the need for modernizing and improving education globally. Our partnership programs serve young people from China and from colleges and universities in the United States. The partnership we offer our students is an unparalled opportunity for U.S. students to study here in China. They immerse themselves in culture and language in China and take courses with young people from your country, and at the same time, enjoy the benefits of a liberal arts instruction. Likewise, when students from UIC come to the United States, they have an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the liberal arts instruction at our institutions. Our very strong partnership provides the challenges and benefits of international collaboration, especially for our faculty, administrators, staff, and students.

The first question I often ask myself is how we, as educators in the United States at liberal arts institutions, conceptualize the nature of our relations with other cultures and countries in the context of globalization. For example, Gustavus Adolphus College started a partnership with Kansai Gaidai University in Japan, over 40 years ago. That program has enabled both institutions to deepen the relationship and spread the challenges and benefits of international collaboration among all of those who have been involved. In that period of time, Gustavus has had over 215 students study in Japan, and we have had 22 faculty teach for more than 30 years at Kansai Gaidai, teaching students both in the Japanese program and in the international programs. It is my sincere hope that we can continue to build our partnership in a similar way. We must remember that we began only four years ago to do so, and, as we work together, the relationship will be enriched.

The second thing I ask myself is how can we expand our partnership in such a way that goes beyond border logistics and engages us and others in our cultures and our institutions, in our countries on an international level, in substantive exchanges that carry the promise of creative change.

The emergence of an international liberal education movement offers an historic opportunity for the United States liberal arts colleges. Those of us in the consortium, as well as other institutions with liberal arts programs, must enter into partnerships that will enrich and inspire us while providing important assistance to our colleagues at all of our institutions.

To be sure, the one thing we must remember is that we are about educating the whole person and the American variant of liberal education incorporates civic values and openness to, and respect for, other cultures. Liberal arts colleges overwhelmingly endorse these values. I am extremely excited to see how UIC is endorsing these values. And, I am excited with the relationships we are developing with this great institution. An ironic result of our limitations, however, is that liberal arts colleges often end up outsourcing students across the world to other programs and do not take seriously what we are doing here with this program between the colleges in Minnesota and UIC. We must continue to reconceptualize international education in the era of globalization, recognizing that we can and should learn with and from each other and our peoples and our cultures. There needs to be a dialectic relationship between learning about diverse cultures and learning to interact with diverse peoples.

The most important factor for the success of our joint venture, I believe, is that we must participate in larger numbers of interested and engaged faculty on both sides, and in larger numbers of students. Through a combination of face-to-face meetings and long distance exchanges, the faculty of our institutions and the faculty here will be brought together, and their knowledge and experience and considerable ingenuity will be brought to bear on the curriculum and course offerings that we develop at our institutions and here as part of this program.

As American liberal arts colleges take up the challenge of establishing long-term collaborative projects, such as the one we have established, it will be important for us to remember that even when it comes to liberal education we do not know it all, nor should we desire to know it all. We must work together to find the best solutions for both our institutions in the U.S. and for you here at UIC.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my ideas and thoughts regarding the importance of internationalism in the liberal arts.