Liberal arts college succeeds in China

As a new president takes charge of Peking University (PKU), its liberal arts college is arguably on the strongest footing since its inception.

From humble beginnings in 2001 as a small experimental program within China’s leading institution, Yuanpei College is today, in many ways, a resounding success. It grew into a full-fledged liberal arts college with over 1,200 students, attracting the crème de la crème of applicants to its parent institution.

“Yuanpei has become the most popular middle school in the PCU. Every year we have the best students from all over the country – PKU and Tsinghua have the best students, but we have the best of the best,” said Feiyu Sun, its associate dean.

But as the university enters a new era of leadership under Gong Qihuang, Yuanpei will once again have to show his worth. With competition ever stronger among Chinese graduates, convincing many people, even academics, of the value of its liberal arts education model continues to be an uphill battle.

“Over the past 20 years, most PKU presidents have come from science and technology backgrounds, so we had to ‘win’ our support from the administration. Some teachers understand that Yuanpei is important, but many don’t even today, even after 20 years,” Sun said.

In China, where students go through years of rigorous preparation for exams designed to place them in top universities to study narrowly defined professional fields, Yuanpei’s approach still seems radical. Students have the freedom to choose their courses here – with no basic requirements – and can graduate in three to six years instead of the standard four. They don’t even have to declare a major in their second year.

By design, the college does not have its own faculty, a decision that still sometimes puts it in tension with the entire PKU faculty, some of whom consider Yuanpei students to lack commitment to a discipline and compete for limited resources with students. within their own departments.

“It gave us a lot of challenges at first because students and teachers from other departments didn’t want Yuanpei students,” Sun said.

Since then, student performance in their classes has been a game-changer, convincing reluctant professors “that a student who chooses no major at first and could change majors without any restrictions could perform even better than students who study professional knowledge from the beginning,” Sun said.

He credited the drive of Yuanpei students, which stems from a genuine interest in the subjects they eventually settle on.

“In China, many students come to college to study economics or business because it was their parents’ decision. Students study this major but don’t like it,” he said. “If Yuanpei students choose a major, they choose it of their own accord… In Yuanpei, you really like this major.”

Getting to this stage, however, is not always easy. Unlike most college students, who choose a department and simply follow the curriculum, Yuanpei students have to choose their own courses, which is the hardest thing for them to do.

“Yuanpei students are really good, passionate, ambitious [and] know what they are doing, but some come to Yuanpei just because their studies were good in high school, not because they know what they want to pursue in college,” Sun said.

Like its students, the college itself is still finding its way.

When Yuanpei started as a program in 2001, there were no plans for what a Chinese liberal arts university would look like. Program directors could not “just borrow the Harvard model” or the old Chinese model, Sun noted.

“We had to find a new Chinese model, combine the tradition, the culture, the history of China [with] modern education… We had to use our imagination.

This remains Yuanpei’s biggest challenge even today, Sun said.

Recently, the college has focused on creating an environment in which students learn outside of the classroom. Taken for granted in countries with long-established liberal artistic traditions, the emphasis on socializing is still foreign in China, with students expected to bond and study during their university years, which the recently built residential college of Yuanpei seeks to resolve.

“We wanted to bring the students together to give them a public space so that they could meet, talk to each other, develop their many hobbies. We want to explore a college lifestyle in China. I believe very, very few professors in China are looking at this issue,” Sun said.

He is convinced that the liberal arts approach, whether in the classroom or in the dorm, pushes students to have “broader horizons”.

But for the more skeptical of his colleagues, any apparent benefit will have to translate into results for Yuanpei alumni. As a math professor recently told Sun, the only thing that will appeal to him are cold, hard numbers, numbers that won’t be apparent for years.

“If we want him to believe in Yuanpei’s model, we have to convince him by the number of students who study mathematics in Yuanpei and who, after 20 years, become famous scientists.”

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