This seminar series brings in scholars and practitioners, domestic and international, for a dialogue on the past, present, and future of Liberal Arts/General Studies.

Co-organizers: SCAPE, CHERA

What We’ve Done…

Does Formal Liberal/General Education Have a Role in the Universities? A Transatlantic Debate between USA and UK (1920-1980)


Chair: Prof Gerard A Postiglione, the University of Hong Kong

Speaker: Dr Shen Wenqin, Peking University

Discussant: Prof Zha Qiang, York University


England is the birthplace of modern idea of liberal education and general education. From the 18th century to the mid-19th century, the model of liberal education based on classics and mathematics, best illustrated in John Henry Neman’s Classic Book The Idea of a University (1872), is dominant in British universities. However, after the second half of the 19th century, university education in England gradually moved towards specialization and a professional training model based on a three-year and single discipline approach pattern. Liberal/general education is mainly completed by non-formal education outside the classroom, such as student associations and residential colleges.

The American university education model was transplanted from the UK and was subsequently influenced by the German model, but it has always insisted on uniquely positioning formal general education (in the form of Core curriculum or distribution courses) in universities, and has become a global leader in liberal/general education in the 20th century. In addition to liberal/general education at pre-university stage, does formal liberal/general education have a role in the universities? Can the aim of liberal education achieve by training in a single disciplinary field (e.g., physics, economics, history, etc.)? In response to the above questions and concerns, educators in the UK and the US expressed divergent views from the 1920s to the 1980s. The US meant to promote its general education model in the UK after World War II, which was unsuccessful and even met with resistance. Through a historical review of the Transatlantic debate, this lecture attempts to answer why the UK and the US chose different paths for undergraduate education in the 20th century on the one hand, and to provoke contemporary reflection on the relationship between liberal/general education and the university on the other.


Shen Wenqin is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Peking University. He mainly studies the higher education system from the perspectives of intellectual history and Sociology of Science. He authored and co-authored publications focused on transnational history of idea and practice of liberal education (China, UK and US), international academic mobility (especially the mobility of college graduates, doctoral students and postdocs) and doctoral career trajectories. His researches have been published in international journals such as the Higher educationHistory of education quarterlyJournal of SociologyHigher education quarterlyStudies in Higher education, etc.  He is currently serving as a coordinating editor for Higher education.

The Contemporary Liberal Arts at Work: An Exploratory Roundtable


In this Roundtable, leaders of integrative, cross-disciplinary, and cross-sectoral programmes will inquire into the types of variegated work that the Liberal Arts accomplish in global research-intensive universities. Focusing on transdisciplinarity, internationalization, and future readiness for both our students, for our universities, and for the planet, we will attempt to tease out articulations about how we might best re-imagine the Liberal Arts in a time of crises, constraints, and opportunities.


Gerard A Postiglione, Coordinator, Consortium for Higher Education Research in Asia (CHERA), Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren, Professor & Director, the Common Core, Founder of GLADE (Global Liberal Arts Design Experiments), The University of Hong Kong

Roundtable Participants

The Roundtable Discussants not only have extensive teaching and research experience, but are also university leaders in the development of innovative cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral learning platforms, both locally and globally.

Dawn Bennett: Assistant Provost and Director of the Transformation CoLab, Bond University, Queensland, Australia

Rick Dolphijn: Associate Professor of Philosophy, Art, and Cultural Studies: Co-Facilitator of The-More-Than-Human-City Research Exchange and The Lives of the Deltas [both with HKU], University of Utrecht, Netherlands

Diana Spencer: Professor of Classics, Dean of Liberal Arts & Natural Sciences (LANS), University of Birmingham, UK

Dimensions of the Contemporary Liberal Arts

Future Readiness; Virtual-Physical Collaborations; MultiMediatic; Project-Based Reflective Learning; Publicly Demonstrated Knowledge; Local-Global Networks; Deep Breadth and Broad Depth; Practice with Transdisciplinary Concepts, Collaborations, & Research; Creative & Critical Skills of Making; Connected with Student Aspirations