Learning Global Humanities in the 21st-century Vietnamese context


We are living in an era that highly values the power of big data and STEM, and we cannot counter-argue how significant these subjects matter to our daily life. Traits that are often linked to STEM such as curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, and pioneering are desirable and praised.

However, our world has evolved from a wealth of knowledge across disciplines to become what it is today and is still constantly changing. We do not know how long this era will last or how it will transform because, for example, just two decades ago, big data was still very much unheard of, and those said traits were once identified with philosophers, though they are always desirable.

It is inadequate to favor one subject over another at any point in our human development. It is even more important today to have a more interdisciplinary education to tackle the grand challenges the human race is facing because our problems are increasingly intertwined, and so are our lives. And only when we fully delve into ourselves – humanities, can we instill changes for a better future.

As a Vietnamese university that is inspired by the American liberal arts and engineering model, Fulbright University Vietnam understood the importance of interdisciplinary education. During the first and second years at Fulbright, students are required to complete five different core courses, which provide them with a multi-faceted knowledge of the world we are living in; Global Humanities and Social Change is one of these five core courses*.

The Concept of Change 

Global Humanities and Social Change is designed to help students examine key moments in the global history of thought through the lens of textual analysis. The course looks at key texts in five core periods and epistemic traditions: (1) classical epistemologies and origin myths; (2) major transitions of the post-classical era; (3) Renaissance, Enlightenment, Revolution and transitions to modernity; (4) Modern Era; and (5) (Post) Colonialism.

By exploring through the texts, students are able to not only analyze and grapple with complex ideas, which influence social policy and shape perception in the contemporary world but also understand the evolution of change. “The goal of Global Humanities is to introduce students to historical changes concerning different people’s approaches to education, politics, ethics, and culture, and to consider how these historical changes have shaped our world today,” says Dr. Kevin Hart, the core coordinator for the course and a faculty member in Literature.

Dr. Kevin Hart, the core coordinator for the course

What makes the course even more enticing is that students are not boxed into just theoretical texts such as Plato’s The Republic or Rousseau’s The Social Contract but can re-evaluate famous literary pieces such as The One Thousand and One Nights to identify the similarities and differences of “change” across concepts and texts, time and places.

Course lecturers, depending on their background and perspective, have the flexibility to tailor reading materials to fit the subject matter. “The range of materials allows us to step outside our comfort zones … to tackle new subject matter and texts. … I may naturally lean towards providing my students with a more historical way to think about the texts we encounter, but it has been gratifying to engage with anthropology and literary analysis as well,” explains Dr. Andrew Bellisari, a faculty member in History and one of the main instructors of this course.

Ultimately, Global Humanities and Social Change hope to provide students a foundation to analyze how “change” has changed historically, how it will affect our lives in modern times, and how we should prepare for and cope with “change” in the future. With this foundation, students will be more equipped to respond to the greatest challenges of our times such as discrimination, inequality, radicalism, etc…

An Understanding of the World 

Changes are inherent, yet not all changes are desirable. At Fulbright, we aspire to create the next generation of positive change-makers in Vietnam for a rapidly evolving world. And it is our responsibility to build an educational experience that can instill positive impacts so that our students can create a better world in the future. To achieve this, we first need to help students understand the global pasts and learn from all they offer.

One of the aims of Global Humanities and Social Change is to de-exceptionalize the Vietnamese experience by showing our students how similar the experiences of very different people have been around the world and throughout time. Our students can build empathy with other cultures and see the shared human experience of change,” adds Dr. Bellisari.

Dr. Andrew Bellisari

Within the texts in this course, students can engage in the thinking processes practiced in different cultures and historical periods, and be exposed to various ways of thinking, analyzing, and questioning. The experiences gained from studying these texts may be qualitatively different, but they are all vital pieces of re-evaluation and self-reflection, which will help Fulbright students become better citizens of the world.

This course helps me re-evaluate ideas which I thought were true, or ethical values that I unquestionably follow. It propels me to question why my society considers this is right and this is wrong, or whether these things hold absolute truth. It teaches me how to think critically about matters in life, equality in our society, and even my own set of ethical values,” shares Hoang Phuong Mai, a Class of 2024 student.

By comparing and contrasting historical and modern texts, students can find their answers to urgent epistemological and ethical problems for the present and future: how to empathize with other people beyond the physical territories, and how to cope with different intellectual, religious, social, and cultural points of views.

Through different stories from different civilizations across places and time, I learn to be more open and become a more well-rounded person. I learn to care more than just my own life. I am eager to solve societal grand challenges such as feminism, systematic racism, the East-West divide, etc… I have never been more mature,” says Quach Thi Xuan Trang, a Class of 2023 student. 

Setting up for Success

Besides knowledge, the Global Humanities and Social Change course also nurtures different habits of mind that allow students to mature into successful, productive citizens of the world who can appreciate others, experience and embrace the notion of empathy, and seek lifelong learning.

This course serves as one of several foundations for developing the reading, writing, and critical thinking skills that students will take into every aspect of their studies and professional lives after Fulbright,” Dr. Ian Kalman, a faculty member in Social Science and the course’s instructor, emphasizes.

Dr. Ian Kalman

Not only required to familiarize themselves with all reading materials but students are also asked to analyze texts in ways that are applicable in the classroom and the professional world beyond the classroom. Such ability to process information and to deal with difficult situations is important to everyone personally and professionally.

It is especially important for helping to deal with contemporary global issues at local, national, and international levels. That is why our future change-makers must continue honing the skills to “connect ideas, sourcing, scrutinizing and evaluating information to solve complex problems,” adds Dr. Matthew McDonald, a faculty member in Psychology and this course’s instructor.

To Vu Ha Vy, a Class of 2024 student, the Global Humanities and Social Change course opens her eyes to new ways of viewing issues and encourages her to consider diverse opinions and ideas.

But to Vo Linh Dan, another Co24 student, the course is more than just tangible skills. “It is not the easiest core course, but it is very intellectually rewarding. … I appreciate how it re-shapes my perception of society and humanity. Such experience affirms my plan to pursue History and Social Studies as majors,” she concludes.

Dr. Matthew McDonald

Thach Thao – Thuy Hang 

* Following the American tradition, students begin their studies at Fulbright by building a breadth of knowledge and skills through a set of core courses of the liberal arts and science. These courses incorporate the key competencies of critical, innovative, and creative thinking, effective communication, reasoning, civic engagement, collaboration, ethical reasoning, and lifelong learning. These courses also illustrate the power of interdisciplinary study to solve modern problems. 

The core curriculum includes: Global Humanities and Social Change, Modern Vietnamese Culture & Society, Quantitative Reasoning for a Digital Age, Scientific Inquiry, and Design and Systems Thinking.

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