Both the United States and China are rethinking higher education, and looking to the other for ideas. American universities admire China’s technical expertise. Chinese schools want the creativity that U.S. liberal arts education encourages.
The College of Mobile Telecommunications in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing, population 29 million, is a typical Chinese college. It teaches telecommunications to students, and then sends them out to work with cell phones for the rest of their lives. If telecommunications doesn’t suit, a student has other options, including North China Electric Power University and Nanjing Audit University. These vocational schools, patterned after the Soviet system, dominate Chinese education.
But now, China is trying something new. Down the street from the College of Mobile Telecommunications is Yuanjing Academy, where students can explore a broad range of subjects, discuss literature, and study music.
“China does not teach you how to communicate,” said Peng Hongbin, the academy’s founder. “For a country to innovate, to be creative, it needs imagination, not a knowledge and know-how from a specific field of study.”
Educated in the rote Chinese system, Peng said he never learned to speak up, and only overcame his shyness later in life in the business world.
Most all U.S. colleges have always taught literature, economics, history, and the arts. In fact, a president at Harvard during the late 19th and early 20th century, Charles William Eliot, believed the goal of “education is not learning, but the capacity and desire to learn.”
But now Americans wonder how valuable a “great capacity” for learning is when they can’t find a job.
Farmers Insurance established the University of Farmers to train insurance agents and adjusters. Students don’t discuss philosophy, or play piano; instead, they learn the insurance business.
Michael Hoffman, 29, who started working at Farmers two years ago and is now seeking a degree, wants “what’s going to be specifically oriented to my career and my career goals.” He appreciates the curriculum focused on underwriting regulation, ethics, and licensing, saying that’s all he has time for.
An associate dean at the school, Frank Novakowski, said, “We don’t have degrees that are just there for the fun of it or because Professor Wonderful started it 30 years ago. People are getting really serious about ‘what am I getting an education for, and what am I going to do after?’ And if the kids aren’t asking, their parents are.”
Professional degrees in homeland security and law enforcement, parks and recreation, and leisure and fitness studies are among the fastest growing majors. Meanwhile, literature, philosophy, and other humanities shrink. Even at Harvard, one-third fewer students plan to major in the humanities now than in 2006. At vocational training colleges, diesel mechanics and specific information technology skills are growing faster than any traditional college degree.
The governors of Florida and North Carolina have pushed to shift state funding away from liberal arts subjects to programs that lead more directly to jobs. According to research by the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington, people with career-focused degrees on average earn more and have lower unemployment.
“There is an argument for getting specific training in the active field you want,” said Marc Tucker, the center’s president, “But if your thinking stops there, you are going to be outcompeted in another five or six or 10 years by somebody who did that and also got a liberal education.”