Bernardo M. Villegas
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A True Liberal Arts Education

           By this time each year, parents and their children in fourth year high school are concerned about which university or college to choose come June 2010. They may get some inspiration from a book that is now popular on the Chinese market, as reported by The Wall Street Journal (December 22, 2009). It is entitled “A True Liberal Arts Education.”

            Written by a 23-year-old Chinese in his fourth year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, the book enumerates the advantages of attending a liberal arts college. Bowdoin College enrolls just 1,700 students and boasts of alumni such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Mr. Chen contrasts the education he has obtained from Bowdoin College with the education prevalent in China, where most schools drill information into students, who then regurgitate it through standardized tests.

            After a high school education, especially in the Philippines in which the pre-university schooling is unusually short, the most important quality that parents and students should look for in a university is training in critical thinking and effective communication, especially in English. There should also be an atmosphere that maximizes opportunities for students to interact closely with their teachers/mentors and their fellow students. Ideally, there should be one faculty member for every ten to fifteen students. Teachers should consider it their responsibility to help the students develop their whole person and not just to acquire professional knowledge or skills which often can be obsolete soon after graduation.

            In this regard, a university whose enrolment goes beyond 2,000 students will find it hard to provide a liberal arts education unless it has the abundant resources that, say a Harvard University is able to employ to construct residential colleges where the undergraduate students are distributed and in which they can enjoy the close contact with their teachers/tutors and their fellow students.  In Harvard College, the total undergraduate enrolment may be more than 4,000. But, as I experienced it as a tutor myself, the undergraduates live in residences or “houses” in groups of 200 to 400. It is in these houses where a truly liberal arts education is made possible.

            In the Metro Manila area, a university that closely approximates the ideal condition for a “true liberal arts education” is the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P). The UA&P has an undergraduate enrolment of approximately 1,500. This small number makes it possible for the teachers/mentors to be in very close contact with the students. Each student is assigned a mentor whose responsibility is to help the mentee to develop a well-rounded personality. Advice given goes much beyond academic matters. Once a strong liberal arts foundation is built during the first three years of college, then the undergraduate students can choose to specialize in such areas as industrial economics, management, integrated marketing communication, education, political economy, information technology, computational sciences, and the humanities. Those who are interested in a UA&P education can go to the website www.uap.edu.ph for the relevant information. For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.