International Liberal Arts Education
A Tradition in Liberal Arts
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The tradition of liberal arts is often held to be an American or Anglo-American tradition, and it is true that it is most widely practiced in the U.S. However, its origins are broader, going back to Classical Antiquity, through which it was transmitted to Europe and Asia. There is no definitive definition of liberal arts education, but it is generally held to involve critical thinking—defined as the capacity to examine questions from diverse disciplinary, philosophical, or political points of view—and a style of teaching that seeks to elicit curiosity and an active search for knowledge on the part of students. There is a natural relationship between liberal education, with its encouragement of tolerance, openness, and the free exchange of ideas, on the one hand, and democracy on the other.
Applied to the increasingly recognized realm of “international,” or “global,” education, liberal arts education appears in three types:
- Programs and relationships created by liberal arts institutions in the U.S. as a means of offering international experience to their students (too often in the form of so-called “island programs”)
- Liberal arts institutions abroad, founded either by Americans or by individuals or groups from those countries, usually catering to local or regional students
- Partnerships of various types and intensities.
Some partnerships are transparently one-sided and exist essentially as a framework for hiring local staff to teach U.S. students—they are a variation on the first type of programs and make little or no contribution to the education of citizens of the country where they are located. At the other end of the spectrum are partnerships that are essentially subsidiaries of U.S. institutions. The programs they create enroll local students and have been founded partly for idealistic reasons and partly (some would say primarily) in the expectation of reaping financial rewards for the home university.
Bard’s international partnerships are somewhere in between. Where we are wholly unique is in our commitment to fostering the spread of liberal arts education as a tool of democratization and a means of modernizing and improving education globally. Primarily, our partnership programs serve young people from the countries where they are located. Secondarily, they offer an unparalleled opportunity for students from North America (or elsewhere) to study abroad at an institution in which they are immersed in the culture of a foreign country, take courses with young people from that country or region, and at the same time enjoy the benefits of liberal arts instruction. Our “deep partnerships” also spread the challenges and benefits of international collaboration among the many actors in our institutional life—faculty and administrators as well as students.
Bard’s international partnerships express an engaged politics of education. We are, indeed, as a colleague once remarked, “agents of globalization.” But ours is a countervailing agency that consciously seeks to encourage mutual critique, oppose hegemony, and foster a democracy of equals and true exchange of values. In a word, we try to implement the core values of liberal education. Like our students, we also learn as much as we teach, and feel fortunate to have the opportunity.
 For a good brief discussion see Jonathan Becker’s essay “What a Liberal Arts Education Is—and Is Not”
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