There’s an interesting new trend in higher education around the world—the liberal arts. TheDEN’s Natalie Olivo ’13, an English major from Pittsburgh, sat down to talk about it with President Dale Knobel, who traveled to Saudi Arabia this spring to advise a new liberal arts college for women.
Olivo: We think of small liberal arts schools as existing primarily in the United States. How are countries overseas embracing this type of higher education?
Knobel: Traditionally, a college like Denison is very much an American institution, but especially in the last 10 years, we’ve begun to see more and more colleges and universities in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia that are being created on a more American liberal arts model. There have always been a few, such as the American University of Cairo, the American University of Paris, and the American University in Beirut. There’s an institution in Pakistan called Forman Christian College, founded by protestant missionaries a century ago, the president of which is a Denison grad [Peter Armacost ’57]. What we’re seeing now is a much more aggressive growth of these kinds of institutions, and they’re popping up in more places all over the world.
Olivo: Is there any specific reason for this emergence of liberal arts institutions?
Knobel: There very clearly is a reason, and that is that most of the world’s higher education system has been organized on the European model, which has been one that’s narrow and professional. As 18-year-olds leave secondary school, they go directly into a program in medicine, law, business, education or engineering and the curriculum is narrowly tailored to that, with little course work outside. What nations around the world are discovering is that in our rapidly changing world—which puts a premium on being flexible, resourceful, and entrepreneurial, along with being able to seize ideas and to change career directions—that traditional European model isn’t working very well.
Any economist in the United States will tell you it’s unlikely that a young person will take a job with an employer and stay on that job track or stay with that employer for very long. A young person coming out of college is going to have not just five to eight jobs, but five to eight careers in his or her lifetime.
If that indeed is the case, what you want to take away from college is the ability to continually re-learn. Leaning isn’t a stagnant thing where you walk away from college, diploma in hand, knowing everything you need to know. But rather, you have to be resourceful. All the things we’ve traditionally associated with liberal arts in this country are being recognized by the world. It would be a far cry to say that it’s caught on everywhere, but the fact that it’s there at all is pretty remarkable
Knobel: The GLCA, which consists of 13 leading liberal arts colleges in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania, and has been around for 40 or 50 years, originally was created to find ways for those institutions to collaborate, first with off-campus study, then more recently with curriculum, sustainability, pursuit of diversity, and many of our shared objectives. An emerging group of international liberal arts colleges began to approach the GLCA for advice and assistance. Many of these places are small. Their funding is still uncertain, and they don’t have a lot of experience in doing some of the things we traditionally do.
With the help of some foundation support, that led to the creation of group called Global Liberal Arts Alliance, which includes the 13 initial GLCA schools with a similar number of international partner colleges. Some are old institutions like the American University of Athens and Foreman Christian University, but there are also many new universities in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, China, and many parts of Europe, such as John Cabot University in Rome and Benjamin Franklin College in Switzerland. There are a number more in Eastern Europe, such as ELCA, the European College of the Liberal Arts, in the former eastern section of Berlin. There’s also a new one in Bratislava and one in Hungary.
So far the partnership has taken on the form, frequently, of faculty and administrative leadership from the American universities going over and assisting on short-term projects. But clearly there are opportunities that run the other way too, such as the opportunity for students and faculty from our institutions to have international experiences and international colleagues. There is growing interest on our campus in languages like Arabic, and now having partners in Arabic speaking nations could open some doors. We’re still exploring what this partnership is going to be.
Olivo: How has Denison participated in this collaboration so far?
Knobel: About two years ago, Denison sent Dr. Larry Scheiderer, then director of athletics and now director of athletics facilities, along with the athletics director at the College of Wooster, to American University in Cairo. They were building a new campus on the outskirts of Cairo and wanted an athletics recreation program, which is very unusual in Europe, Africa and Asia, but very common in United States. They wanted to know how to set up an athletics center, how to run intramural programs, and how to create some intercollegiate opportunities. One of things they are discovering, as we have, is that we want all of these connections with residence life to keep students engaged, interested and committed to the campus. All those things pay off educationally.
So that’s what led to my recently being asked to go as the senior president in GLCA to Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, near the Red Sea. Effat University is an innovation in Saudi Arabia. It is one of just two recently founded private universities for women, offering at least a liberal arts core. They wanted to make sure that they have a general education curriculum that would expose students to a wider variety of points of view—ways of looking at the world
Olivo: Are there certain unique opportunities and challenges for a women’s college in Saudi Arabia?
Knobel: There are. This is a very traditional society that views the role of women in very traditional terms. On the other hand, it is a society going through a lot of change. There is recognition that women may not be a fully utilized resource in modern society. It is a monarchy, which is governed by a royal family. The current king is interested in promoting modernization, but not too much modernization, not too fast.
There are some practical issues. We’re all aware that women in Saudi Arabia don’t drive automobiles, but the impact didn’t fully sink in until I was sitting at conference table with a distinguished woman university president, along with vice presidents and deans, chairs of academic departments, who were educated all over the world. I realized they couldn’t get to work in the morning without a male member of family or hired driver dropping them off, and they couldn’t leave campus without a driver picking them up. This made it very difficult to do co-curricular programs, because basically at four o’clock every day, the driver showed up to take students away. They had to be done. It’s hard for students wanting to do labs after hours or participate in a co-curricular program.
The university is committed to pursuing liberal education within the norms of the culture and the religious culture as well. In fact, it draws its mission from the first word of Quran, which means “to read.” Reading is more than understanding the written word. It’s also a way of engaging the mind in critical and evaluative thinking. They are trying to reach an accommodation between the openness of the liberal arts and its way of encouraging people to think broadly and the traditional values of Saudi society.
Olivo: What was your experience at Effat like?
Knobel: I was brought in to critique their curriculum drafts. I made suggestions, interviewed the faculty, and learned more about their commitment to the liberal arts. In the end, the general education curriculum is just the set of requirements on paper. If it’s going to have any reality, the faculty have to buy into it. We talked about pedagogy and how, to really fulfill the promise of liberal arts, this cannot be all a lecture-style of teaching. It has to be more participatory, with engaged learning like we do at Denison.
Olivo: It’s interesting to consider that Denison is influencing a school in Saudi Arabia.
Knobel: It is. By the same token, while I was there over course of three days, I learned a great deal about that culture and different ways of going about education. This is a learning experience, which I hope makes me a better-informed citizen of the world, and can help me as we think about educating young people for a diverse world.
Opportunities for exchange go both ways. We’re not Americans that are going to export our ways to the world and say, “This is the right way.” There are clearly things we can learn as well, and part of it is getting a chance to think. When I was in Effat, I had to think about what it is we try to achieve with our general education curriculum at Denison. We need to think about that from time to time.
I think this is probably the beginning of a larger trend. We are likely to see continuing efforts around the world to craft a more liberal arts style of education. That provides some real opportunities for colleges like Denison, its faculty, staff and students to be engaged with other college and universities. We’ll just have to watch and see what transpires.