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Higher Learning Dilemma> Archive
UPDATED: October 28, 2009 NO. 43 OCTOBER 29, 2009
Is Non-major Education Practical?


Since A. S. Parkard initiated the Bowdoin College program in the United States in the 19th century, making "general education" a central part of college education, more and more people have become interested in this topic. However, this concept is not so well received in China, where colleges generally have clear divisions among different disciplines, that is, students have to choose a major on the first day of class.

Some parents and students argue that the rigid division of disciplines hinders students' all-around development, and that many students cannot pursue their preferred major because of this system.

Sun Yat-sen University in south China's Guangdong Province recently set up the Boya School, hoping to solve the problems inherent in higher education through a new program under which students no longer need to choose a particular major.

Since it was inaugurated on September 19, the Boya School, which only holds 35 students, has quickly become the focus of nationwide attention. The purpose of the school is to train great thinkers and scholars, who are equipped with rich knowledge. In order to reach this goal, the Boya School will not offer strictly divided disciplines during the four-year program, but instead will center on the training of academic talents.

Some people have expressed doubts about this mode of education. First, in the information age, great thinkers and scholars are no longer people who only know a lot of existing knowledge but those who can keep up with new information and properly evaluate it. The second criticism concerns the textbooks. If masterpieces by ancient thinkers such as Confucius and Mencius serve as the core of the Boya School's general education, then this kind of education is lacking in strong cultural support. In particular, it fails to develop the most important skills associated with general education—independent personality and critical thinking. Third, it is quite possible that students without a major will have difficulty finding a job after graduation.

An important reform

Li Xiaoliang (www.hsw.cn): First of all, colleges should produce educated people, not robots. The main purpose of general education is to help students develop critical thinking skills and learn to take initiative. In a diversified society, the objective of college education is not to divide professions into as many parts as possible, but to help creative students find the right place for themselves in society and even to create their own positions. Students who receive general education will find the road ahead much more broad, while graduates from strict discipline division systems might find their future road increasingly narrow when the labor market becomes saturated.

General education does not mean that students do not acquire professional knowledge; it means finding a balance between professional skills and common knowledge.

For example, in modern society, freethinking and independence are at the core of civic spirit, which must be made the soul of college education. If civic spirit is lost, students and their teachers will gradually lose their ability to think and judge for themselves, rendering them able only to follow administrative instructions. General education is the remedy to this problem.

Shu Shengxiang (Xi'an Evening News): Nowadays, some people believe that the development of general education is not an isolated part of college system reform, but rather an inseparable link in the overall reform package. This argument is not completely groundless, but it seems to be an excuse to delay the reform process. Given the current college situation, general education is not only possible, but also necessary and we can do it very well.

We have been addicted to the profit-oriented education reform for too long. Chinese colleges are no longer holy places for academic research. Today's Chinese college students know little about ancient Chinese culture and even if they know some, their understanding is based on Western values. It's already an undeniable fact that college students are lazy in their thinking, academic research is going astray and as a result, the quality of Chinese college education is dropping.

General education is not a panacea for China to rebuild world-class universities, but it will discourage profit-oriented reform efforts and make colleges real colleges, as opposed to high-level labor training schools.

Wang Haiyue (News Daily): Discipline-based education and general education are different models that result from a different understanding of "education."

Discipline-based education is like an industrial assembly line, and here knowledge is imparted in a standardized way. In this process, students only learn the answers they are supposed to give. They become tools or technical workers. They lack imagination and creativity, let alone a humanistic spirit.

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