The Rise of Liberal Arts in Hong Kong

HONG KONG—The businessman Po Chung might seem an unlikely advocate for the virtues of a U.S.-style liberal education. As the cofounder of the Asia Pacific branch of the shipping giant DHL, Chung is an entrepreneur who grew up poor and whose success is emblematic of the former colony’s hard-driving capitalist culture.

But he’s also one of the leading advocates for adding a big dose of humanities and social sciences to the curriculum of Hong Kong’s universities.

Chung and other backers of an unprecedented three-year-old curriculum-reform effort are determined to steer the city’s eight universities away from the rote learning, test obsession, and narrow career focus that still characterize much of the Asian education system. They think it’s past time for colleges to introduce a broader range of subjects, to promote greater intellectual curiosity, and to foster creative thinking. And they’re convinced that these changes will, in turn, build a workforce of rigorous, creative thinkers—just what they think is needed to meet the fast-changing needs of a transforming global economy.

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To one degree or another, this kind of liberal-arts approach has long been a distinctive feature of American colleges and universities. In fact, U.S. undergraduate education is the explicit model for Hong Kong’s liberal-education campaign. A cadre of U.S. Fulbright scholars was even imported to implement the plan.

Hong Kong and some other Asian countries are embracing everything from art history to sociology as necessary components of undergraduate coursework. However, the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

With the rising cost of tuition, mounting student debt, and students and parents worried about the prospect of post-graduation unemployment or underemployment, many Americans are thinking of higher education in increasingly utilitarian terms. The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in humanities disciplines has dropped to 6 percent from its peak of 17 percent in 1968.

Hong Kongers certainly care about the practical considerations, too. But for Chung, who spent part of his undergraduate career at Whittier College, a liberal-arts school in Southern California, producing the responsible, economically productive citizens Hong Kong needs goes hand in hand with the habits of minds inculcated by the liberal arts. General education, one of the terms Hong Kong uses for its new offerings, produces graduates “who are critical and creative thinkers, problem solvers, gifted communicators, team managers, and ethical leaders,” Chung wrote in a South China Morning Post op-ed. Add those qualities to the “creative communities of innovation” built by the liberal arts, he argued, and the result is pragmatic: skills “for which employers are willing to pay the highest salaries.”

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Given autonomy over how they put the changes into action, most institutions opted for pick-and-choose distribution requirements across about five categories, such as humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, China studies, and “global issues.” The Chinese University of Hong Kong, however, required some specific classes—a core-curriculum requirement akin to the University of Chicago’s Great Books sequence. Nearly one-third of the undergraduate coursework at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (or HKUST) is made of a core liberal-arts curriculum. The chance to take classes in a wide range of fields holds enormous appeal for students like Sivaraam “Shiv” Muthukumar, a fourth-year HKUST undergraduate studying mechanical engineering and business management. “I do not know what I’m going to do after university, but I do know what I want to become,” Muthukumar says. “I’ve always had in mind that I wanted to be a Renaissance man.”

But implementing an educational approach that departed so much from the status quo was complicated. Chung himself put up a matching donation of $1 million—supplemented by government and university funds—to bring in a group of 24 American Fulbright scholars to help. The rationale was that the Fulbrights, many of them faculty at U.S. universities, had the on-the-ground skills needed to consult with traditional research universities and help them make the transition to a more liberal-arts-oriented model.

“It’s all about talent,” said Glenn Shive, a U.S. expat who administered the Fulbright program as head of the Hong Kong-America Center and is now vice president for programs at the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia.

Universities had been producing memorizers with narrow, career-focused training, rather than the entrepreneurial problem-solvers the business sector wants, Shive said. In contrast, he said, Asian students who have studied in the United States learn to think “beyond the conventional wisdom,” which is why the U.S. liberal-arts model has growing appeal.

While advocates remain optimistic, there’s no consensus yet about how successful the experiment has been. The reform has never extended to the creation of freestanding U.S.-style liberal arts colleges in the mold of Amherst or Reed. Instead, the focus has been on the two other components of liberal education: curricula that broaden students’ intellectual horizons and interactive teaching methods that give them the tools to become rigorous and creative thinkers.

Approaches are vast and varied. Students at the Chinese University, for example, study Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of the mandatory core curriculum, while undergraduates at the University of Hong Kong have the option of enrolling in classes like “The Press, the Public, and the Public Sphere,” in partial fulfillment of the humanities distribution requirement, one of four “areas of inquiry.”

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