Keynote Speech, Peking University

March 10, 2010 - Keynote Speech, Peking University

From Co-Existence to Collaboration: Integrating Liberal arts and Professional Education

President Zhou; Executive Vice President Lin; faculty and students of Peking University; honored guests; and friends all:

As the president of America’s first University, I am deeply honored to speak at China’s first modern research University and first national University.

Our bonds of friendship have deep roots. We share a passionate devotion to the pursuit of knowledge across academic boundaries and national borders. Our Universities – and our countries -- have benefited from rewarding student exchanges and from our research partnerships in management, law, communications, and oral health.

We base today’s historic memorandum of understanding on mutual interest and mutual respect. Our two Universities have more knowledge to discover together and more wisdom to gain from one another.

Our two Universities also face a daunting but worthy challenge, all the more urgent in the wake of the Great Recession: How do we prepare our students, who are anxious about their immediate job prospects, not simply to be immediately employable but, far more important, to be adaptable and innovative over their lifetimes in ways that contribute most to social and global progress?

I invite you to face this challenge head on with me by re-thinking the relationship between liberal arts education and professional education, where a rather rigid separation between the liberal arts and professional—or pre-professional—education has characterized the theory and the practice of higher education for the past century.

The most selective Universities, like Penn and Peking, may be said to face a fundamental choice:
Should we give our students a specialized pre-professional education, which offers depth at the expense of breadth? Or should we offer a liberal arts and sciences education, which offers breadth at the expense of depth?

If time and resources were boundless, the answer would be that we should do both. But life is short and resources limited. Offering students everything at once is not only wildly unrealistic; it also shows a complete lack of focus and discipline.

But can we create a better educational model by bridging the divide between liberal arts education, on the one hand, and pre-professional and professional education, on the other? Different universities have distinctive qualities and strengths, so no single answer is likely to be right for every university.

Recently, universities like Penn and Beida, which attract the most talented, hardworking, and ambitious students, have begun to strive for more integration of liberal arts and professional education.

Achieving anything close to a full integration will prove difficult for many Universities. But if we focus on problem-driven interdisciplinary fields where we have considerable faculty strength, we stand a better chance to boost our universities’ capacity for educating students to be adaptable and innovative over their lifetimes … and in ways that contribute most to the progress of our societies and the world.

I believe that Beida is the ideal University for us to commence this conversation with across national and cultural boundaries. Your mission statement explicitly calls for “the promotion of interaction and mutual promotion among various disciplines.” Similarly, the integration of knowledge across liberal arts and professional education is a touchstone of Penn.

Let me offer a working definition of a “liberal arts education,” which is shorthand for a liberal arts and sciences education. I am referring to a broad university curriculum that encompasses history, philosophy, literature, languages, and the social, natural, and physical sciences.

A liberal arts education typically requires some distribution across the liberal arts disciplines and some concentration within them. “Liberal learning” describes the acquisition of creative and analytical skills, and modes of thinking that characterize the different liberal arts disciplines.

What, we might begin by asking, do the most talented students truly want to learn? Most students at places like Penn and Beida expect us to prepare them to secure a good job after they graduate. Now, this is the task that purely pre-professional, professional, and technical training is formally designed to perform. Most university students are focused on that first job – and the most popular undergraduate major is—anyone want to venture a guess? You guessed right: Business.

Yet while 78 percent of freshmen say that being well off financially is their highest concern (an historic high), 69 percent also say that helping others in difficulty is among their highest priorities. And while business still remains the largest single major in American universities, the interest in majoring in business or choosing business as a career has fallen to an historic 35-year low.

It would not only be wrong, it also would be imprudent for the most selective universities to cater only to students’ desire to be employable after graduation. In the economy of the 21st century, jobs that appear secure today often grow extinct tomorrow. Companies that once dominated their industries are now bankrupt or disappearing.

How many of you own digital cameras?

How many of you remember (or have heard of) the old Polaroid camera? You snapped a photograph, pulled a film sheet from the camera, and waited a few moments for image to develop.

It may be hard to imagine, but those Polaroid cameras were once the gold standard of innovation in instant film photography. Today, those old cameras are scrap metal.

What happened to the Polaroid camera perfectly illustrates the theory of creative destruction, when a tidal wave of global innovation virtually wipes out companies, entire industries, and, of course, jobs along with them.

What does it mean for college-age students? It means that many jobs for which millions of students are being technically trained today will be wiped out by the next wave of innovation tomorrow.

Students who have specialized skills AND also are liberally educated to think creatively will have a distinctive advantage: They will be equipped to master new areas of knowledge. They will be able to collaborate across cultural and disciplinary boundaries and thrive in enterprises that have not even been invented yet. They will be in the vanguard of innovation.

That has been the happy fate of graduates of Penn’s Digital Media Design program, which unites the once segregated disciplines of computer science, communications, and fine arts. Students master five different computer languages and develop exceptional communications skills while receiving an eminent fine arts education. One of our graduates got his first three jobs doing animation for major movie studios, including Pixar. Now he is drawing on those innovative skills he once used to create flocks of seagulls at Pixar to design games that help children with autism.

Many Chinese and American educational leaders appreciate the value of a liberal arts education as much as they recognize the practical benefits of professional education. Why then should we settle simply for “peaceful coexistence” between a liberal arts and a professional (or pre-professional) education?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Flexner Report, which transformed the teaching of medicine in North America. Before the report was issued, most medical schools taught medicine not as a profession, but as a trade. Students were drilled to memorize facts and observe their instructors in gross anatomy and physiology labs.

The odds ran about 50-50 that graduates of these medical schools were incompetent.

The Flexner Report revolutionized medical education. Admissions requirements were strengthened. Medical education incorporated the life sciences – beginning with biochemistry and physiology. Medical schools affiliated with universities and hired full-time clinical faculty.

The Flexner Report demonstrated the wisdom of better integrating parts of a liberal education with professional education. Much more still needs to be achieved in this direction if we are to realize the full promise of higher education for our students and our societies.

In America, the prospect of integrating a liberal education and a professional education has been undermined time and again by many factors: by parochial battles between competing departments within schools and competing schools within universities; by the public misconception that teaching and research are mutually exclusive; and by the widespread lingering misperception that liberal arts and professional education must be segregated because they are mutually incompatible.

Other than for institutional convenience, why would one rigidly separate rather than flexibly integrate academic disciplines and a liberal education with a professional education?

Here’s why:

If you’re a true believer in the liberal arts, you might believe that society’s great future citizens and leaders must be educated in history, literature, languages, science, and philosophy; you might also view professional and pre-professional schools as corrupting influences on undergraduate education, far too narrowly focused on what is convenient rather than on what is true.

If you’re a professional education purist, you might believe quite the opposite: that the liberal arts are a luxury and a costly distraction from the task of equipping students with a practical skill set and the necessary depth in a specialized subject that will enable them to put their education into effective practice after earning their degrees.

Each of these purist perspectives crowds out the other by grossly overstating its case. Yes, liberal arts and sciences education must instill in students a passion to seek what is true, and appreciate that knowledge is valuable for its own sake.

Otherwise, learning becomes so instrumental that it tends to undermine the psychology necessary to defer short-term gratification for long-term advantage.

What liberal arts purists neglect to the detriment of their own case is the fact that a liberal arts education is ALSO, and not incidentally, extremely practical.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that liberal learning is absolutely essential to economic and social progress. A liberal arts education teaches students to become creative and innovative in their chosen fields. It allows them to see “the big picture” and to understand the history and larger social purpose of their professions.

Some of you may recognize the name Howard Marks. He is the chairman of Oaktree Capital Management, a global investment corporation with $73 billion in assets. It has been reported in the press that the China Investment Corporation recently entrusted Oaktree to manage $1 billion worth of its own assets. (Howard Marks also chairs Penn’s Investment Committee.)

Howard Marks is not your typical CEO with a business degree in Finance from Penn’s Wharton School. Howard is an avid writer, a creative thinker and a true leader, who resists the crowd mentality by being alert to the excesses of evolving economic environments.

The course at Penn that he says “truly changed his life” wasn’t Principles of Accounting or Introduction to Finance. It was Japanese literature. While majoring in finance, Howard minored in Japanese studies, which is not incidental to his success or his contributions to society.

Howard has what one might describe as an Eastern outlook on investment success. When he distills his philosophy of investment, he refers to what he learned studying Japanese literature: We have to “adapt and accommodate rather than think that everything’s within our control.” In one of his widely read (and beautifully written) memos on the market, Howard quotes Lao Tzu:

“To be strong you have to be like water: if there are no obstacles, it flows; if there is an obstacle, it stops; if a dam is broken, then it flows further; if a vessel is square, then it has a square form; if a vessel is round, then it has a round form; because it is so soft and flexible, it is the most necessary and the strongest thing.”

For millions of talented students, a liberal education, as the word suggests, is liberating. The creative capacity of the human mind, coupled with the exponentially expanding storehouse of human knowledge, maximizes innovation and adaptation to change. This, in turn, maximizes the number of career paths available to University graduates.

By one recent calculation, the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. Students who start studying to earn a technical degree today likely will discover that half of what they learn in their first year will be out of date in their third year.

Given the speed at which technical information both expands and becomes outdated, we should be teaching our students to become learners for life. At its best, learning for life is precisely what a liberal education is oriented to accomplish.

However, a liberal education need not be segregated from a professional or pre-professional education. There is little that is liberating or edifying about an education that quarantines students from “real world experiences” and excludes in-depth knowledge and intellectual insight into the role of the professions in society.

Just as infusing pre-professional education with liberal learning can have a life-transforming, career-enhancing impact, so, too, can infusing a liberal arts education with understanding the demands and responsibilities of professional life.

Consider careers in the Life Sciences--which offer huge potential for lives to be saved, diseases to be cured, poverty to be eradicated, and wealth to be generated.

Should we not want future leaders of pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology firms, hospitals, health care clinics, as well as leaders in academic medicine to possess a sophisticated understanding of both the life sciences and business?

Thinking along these lines, Penn recently launched an innovative Life Sciences and Management Program inspired by (and named for) the eminent chemist and former CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, Roy Vagelos. Students learn fundamental life sciences, economics, technology and bio-ethics. They undertake scientific research in our College of Arts and Sciences, and also produce case studies in organizational management in our Wharton School.

Our goal is to enable these students to graduate with a far more comprehensive -- and intellectually challenging -- understanding of what leadership in the life sciences entails than they would gain by concentrating on only one discipline.

A purely career-oriented professional education is not sufficient for being a leader in any profession. A major requirement of enlightened professional leadership is understanding the broader social role and corresponding responsibilities of the professions in our world.

Integrated educational programs empower students to be adaptive and innovative. For such programs to flourish, we need to view liberal arts education as essential rather than detrimental to professional education, and vice versa. We also need to believe in the power of human creativity and innovation to improve our societies and the world.

China enjoys an enviable position from this perspective: Spurred by Project 9-8-5 (launched right here on Beida’s 100th anniversary), your government has invested heavily to ensure that Beida and other eminent Chinese universities are among the world’s best. China has that rare opportunity to reach revolutionary new heights in higher education.

I would like to propose a new partnership --- a partnership modeled on the productive relationships that Penn and Beida are forming with one another.

Great Chinese and American Universities are building a bridge of knowledge spanning the globe. We are drawing on our respective faculty strengths to educate students to be the innovators and leaders of tomorrow. To be maximally successful, we also will need to continue lowering the drawbridges that separate liberal arts education and professional education. One way we can do this is by creating faculty and student collaborations across our campuses that span liberal arts and the professions.

There is every reason to think that those universities that join together to embrace this historically unprecedented kind of integration across liberal arts and professional education will be the most powerful forces for progress in our societies and the world:

We are not betting that we will produce millions of brilliant sages like Mencius and Confucius, and millions of creative geniuses like Einstein and Shakespeare.

But we will educate more adaptable future leaders who are creative problem-solvers, socially responsible members of their professions, and visionaries.

We are not betting that we will end poverty, disease, global warming and terrorism tomorrow.

But we will translate our collaborative research into innovative ideas that address those problems.

We have the ingredients for dramatic progress.

The prospects for integrating liberal arts and professional education have never been brighter. And I am proud to say that the bonds between our two universities have never been stronger.

So it should surprise no one here to learn that I am an optimist who is betting on a successful partnership between our two great Universities. And I welcome your questions and comments!

Thank you.