Importance of Liberal Arts Education by Gowher Rizvi

Importance of Liberal Arts Education
Address by Professor Dr Gowher Rizvi
Adviser on International Affairs to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh
Chief Guest at ULAB’s 8th Foundation Day, 1st October 2012
University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Vice Chairman of the Board, respected faculty members and of course, very, very dear students

For me to come to ULAB and have the opportunity of speaking to you for the second time is truly a privilege. As your Vice Chair said I have a passion for liberal arts education. I believe our future lies in liberal arts education and therefore for me to able to come and share some thoughts is absolutely a unique pleasure and a privilege.
Before I proceed, let me say a few things so that you will hopefully appreciate my candor because I am not an outsider. I am one of you. I have been a lifelong student and much of my last four decades a faculty member. So in many ways I speak for you, on your behalf and with you, knowing that I am one of you.

Today there is absolutely no room for a second rate university. In a global society, education is global, universities are global, and standards are global. We no longer compete with universities in Bangladesh. We no longer compete with universities in South Asia or Asia. We have to compete with universities globally and we have to educate our students so that they can become global citizens and are able to compete with others throughout the world who will be competing for jobs. I can promise you the day is not far away when even in Bangladesh you will be competing with students from other international universities. So for us as faculty we cannot afford to be complacent. We have to make sure our students are globally competitive.

The task of a liberal arts college, university, or education is many fold and it is becoming more and more difficult. The first truly liberal arts education, first four year degree university was founded in Bologna, Italy, exactly or a little over a thousand year ago. At that time the corpus of knowledge, the body of knowledge was fairly limited. We did not know that the world was round. Since then our knowledge has proliferated, sciences have expanded, human endeavor, knowledge has expanded many fold and our task is still to produce and enthuse students within the space of four years and familiarize themselves with the literature which is many thousand times larger than the one Bologna had to do a thousand years ago. So our task is much more difficult.

We have to provide much, much more superior education and transmit that education in the space of four years. Today’s not the occasion; on another occasion I will be happy to argue with you why four years is not enough. But I am also aware of the parents; they will not like to hear me say that. So I will stay away from that subject. Not only we have to produce better students, we also have to produce international citizens, global citizens.

Most of you who will go out of this university, your horizon will not be confined to Bangladesh. Whether you work in this country or you work abroad, you will be working in a global world where you have to be able to be at home here and at home abroad. You have to be multilingual, multicultural, who can make a transition easily from one society to another in a seamless way. So the challenge for liberal arts education is not only to produce a first-class mind but also to produce a citizen who can empathize with other points of view, with other perspectives, with other culture and work in organization where your assumptions, the assumptions with which you grow up is tested every day. When we are like-minded, we have shared assumption, shared culture, shared practices; we take many things for granted. But when you are confronted with a global society, people with differing history, perceptions, culture, background, experiences, your assumption will be challenged everyday. And the challenge for you is to be able to hold on to your arguments, aware of its limitations and an openness to respond to new ideas, new knowledge and new experiences. So I think for any university to be successful and most importantly for liberal arts university to be successful we have to, on the one hand, train our undergraduates to be first class minds, and, on the other hand, to make them as global citizen.

Now let me turn to my faculty friends. The responsibility is enormous. I was really happy to hear from the vice chair that you are developing centers of excellence, centers of research and I am also very, very happy to hear that the faculty are more and more engaged. One of the big criticisms of private universities are that faculty do not have the opportunity and time to engage in research. Let me tell you there can be no university worthy of its name where research is not thriving and, as a faculty member, I can tell you that there is no conflict, no divergence between teaching and research of building knowledge. The two go hand in hand. Those who claim “I am good teacher. I take care of my students and therefore I don’t have the time to research” will have to search their hearts again. You cannot be a good teacher unless you replenish your own knowledge everyday of the year because knowledge is fast changing, it is growing, it is becoming ever more complex and nobody can stand still. The yellow notes which many of us experienced, which was recycled year after year, I am afraid will no longer do and very quickly students know that because students are not only hearing your lectures but they are also on the internet, they are looking at what others are saying, what others are thinking and they are comparing your teaching, your lectures, your knowledge with those outside the world. So I really, really believe that faculty have a very, very strong reason and I hope, since I will take this liberty, since the chair and the vice chair are both here, I really hope you will make research an integral part of your faculty assessment.

Rewards for research is essential, opportunities for research is essential. But not only research is essential and important; but what type of research, because knowledge today is global. We are no longer satisfied to receive inherited wisdom or knowledge. Knowledge cannot be simply doled out by the West and we are not mere consumers of knowledge. We have to become producers of knowledge and the best knowledge is produced when there is an interaction between multiple societies. I talked about assumptions. No research can stand until it is tested through comparative studies of multiple societies – developed, developing, north-south, east-west.

We have long talked of interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary and yet we have all remained locked in our parent disciplines. Well, faculty may have the leisure of remaining locked in their parent discipline; our students do not have that luxury. They need to be familiarized in knowledge or a question examined from the perspective of multiple disciplines and therefore the faculty today has an enormous responsibility to train students as global citizens, to train their minds, to assimilate and disseminate a corpus of knowledge which is fast expanding and changing and finally to teach students effortlessly to understand a problem from the perspective of multiple disciplines. No single discipline will ever be able to answer a question in today’s complex interdependent world.

Having shared some thoughts with the faculty, let me now turn to the students. Here I have much more to say but then I am going to be very short and brief so that you can ask me some questions. I would like you to ask me some questions so that I can answer more specifically. I know for many students and, more importantly, for many parents if not most parents, university education is to gain a credential. It is an exercise in credentializing so that you can get a good, secured, comfortable, well-paying, decent job. Of course as parents we would all like to see that; but is that the purpose of the university? Yes, it is a byproduct. But that is not what the university is about.

Several years ago I did some research as to what do our students do when they leave university. We conducted a number of surveys at Harvard over a period of fifty years. And a very interesting phenomenon showed up. Our students changed career, not a job, but career 2.7 times. In other words an average student graduating this year will have changed careers two to three times in their lifetime. Please understand the significance of this statistic. So no matter what you are preparing for, to be an engineer, to be a doctor, to be a medic, a businessmen, don’t be sure that forty years later you will still be a doctor, an engineer or a business executive. You are likely to change your career three times. Accountants will become economists, economists will become business executives, and business executives will become public servants. You will actually change profession. Doctors will become engineers, engineers will become historians. That is the future you are going into and if that is the future, it does not make sense to say I will specialize in medicine, I will specialize in business, I will do a BBA, MBA and what not.

We have to do something better because the trait that you will learn — and, as our vice chair very nicely said, universities are not about vocational or professional training – through liberal arts is about the training of your mind – a very, very important distinction. It is about the training of your mind. Once a mind is trained that mind can do whatever it is asked for. A businessman cannot become a nuclear physicist but one who does philosophy with a disciplined mind can become an astrophysicist, because your mind is trained to learn. That’s what liberal arts education does. It teaches you how to learn. It does not teach you business, it does not teach you dates in history. “I am not good at history because I can’t remember dates.” Rubbish! What history does is it teaches you discipline. Philosophy teaches you discipline. Mathematics teaches your mind to become disciplined. A disciplined mind is one that knows how to study, how to learn. Doesn’t matter what the subject is. A disciplined mind can read through vast amount of material, vast literature and distill the information, sift the relevant facts, separate the trees from the forest, marshal evidence, draw conclusions and write a coherent statement. That is the disciplining of the mind. Your mind is disciplined to become evidence based, detached. Out of twenty different things, you learn which evidence to believe, which evidence to reject. Organize the information and then be able to tell a coherent story based on the evidence and draw a sound conclusion. Once your mind can do that, you can do anything. So the first job of liberal arts education is to train your mind.

The second as I have repeated is to train you to become a lifelong learner. Your education will not end with the end of your university. Sadly for many people in the past this is what has happened. Once you leave the university you are so busy that you don’t have time to read anything and in any case your interest is so limited, your mind is so constricted that you find reading uninteresting. But liberal arts gives you ability to be a lifelong learner and lifelong learning is the most important portable skill, a skill that you can carry from one place to another, from one job to another, from one society to another and it will always be relevant. It is this lifelong habit of study, of learning that also enables you to remain on top of whatever profession you are. Those of you are who are working in computer sciences, I promise you in five years the only way you will remain current is by remaining on top of your subject and constantly renewing your knowledge. Without that there is no way you can remain on top and you will have slip very quickly if you are a teacher into your yellow notes. So long as a university can impart these two things – train disciplined minds and instill in you lifelong learning skills – and compliment it with an ability to examine a problem from multidisciplinary perspectives, you have the combination of excellent liberal arts education.

But that is not enough. That’s the formal part of your education. There’s also very important informal part of your education and that informal part of education happens not in the classroom but outside the classroom. When I went to Oxford, our vice chancellor at the matriculation ceremony, which is the starting ceremony at Oxford, told us “you will learn as much from friends as you will learn from your teachers”. Nobody has ever told me a greater truth than that. After three years at Oxford, I felt I had learned more from my fellow students. When I was teaching in Harvard, I often asked students “what is the best thing you like about Harvard?” They say “other fellow students, because we learned so much from them”. That is why we have to be very, very sure who are the other students, what sort of people make up the other students. Most important criteria is that all of you are brilliant, all of you have a minimum GPA of 4 or more; but without the total diverse microcosm of the world, your student will not have the exposure and the experience to be able to get the sort of education. That is why students today go to Harvard, they go to Williams, they go to Yale, they go to Oxford because that’s the experience they get. Diversity is extremely important, diversity of not only of language, culture, and disciplines but also of social background. Why do you think many of the best institutions of the world encourage students from the poorer background, poorer socio economies? The last five minutes was the plea for social justice which is what I do for my living. So I should get back to the task of liberal arts education. I want to say to you that those of you who are privileged to have liberal arts education, those who will come out of this university with a trained and disciplined mind, the world is yours. You will never, never have to look back and just as you will never have to look back, just as the world will become your oyster, just as all good things will come to you, please remember with privilege comes responsibilities. So the last part of your education is that your education also gives you a responsibility to your society, to your neighbors, to your people who are less fortunate than you. If you can do all these things, and they are not difficult, you will have truly lived a good life and repaid to the society, to your parents, to your teachers all the benefits and blessings of liberal arts education.

Thank you very much.