March 11, 2018

Liberal Arts: Opportunity for Vietnam?

March 11, 2018

Prof, Dr. Pham Quang Minh, Dean of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Hanoi National University).

Graduating from the University of History, one of the most famous universities in the former Soviet Union. He pursued graduate studies for his PhD in Germany at Passau University and Humboldt University. Since 2002, Professor Minh has spent time teaching and in management at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Prof. Minh has been a Visiting Fellow at universities and research institutes around the world including, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan, Indonesia Institute of Science (LIPI), Jakarta, Indonesia, Asian Studies Institute, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, SciencePo Institute, Paris, France.

“What makes Liberal Arts different is that it is not like training colleges in former Soviet or Vietnamese systems. Instead, education provides comprehensive knowledge”.

Dr. Pham Quang Minh, Dean of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Hanoi National University) shared observations based on his experiences and suggested different ideas for educators and students.

A graduate from the University of History, one of the most famous universities in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Dr. Minh returned to Vietnam as a lecturer in History at the University of Hanoi.

Then in the 1990s, he pursued graduate studies for his PhD in Germany at Passau University and Humboldt University. Since 2002, Professor Minh has spent time teaching and in management at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

With experience in higher education in research, teaching, and management, Prof. Minh has been a Visiting Fellow at universities and research institutes around the world including, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan, Indonesia Institute of Science (LIPI), Jakarta, Indonesia, Asian Studies Institute, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, SciencePo Institute, Paris, France.

He was a Visiting Scholar at Pomona College, a liberal arts school that attracts students from 63 countries and 49 states in the United States.

Recognizing that we are “a product of many different educational backgrounds and academic experience” from around the world, Professor Minh said that “Liberal Arts” is so new in Vietnam that many parents and students do not understand.

“I had four months teaching at the Liberal Arts College at Pomona. Professors at Pomona say they are “Harvard of the West,” but they also say Harvard is “Pomona on the East Coast.

” The school is very popular, with a tuition fee of $40,000 USD a year. The 2016-2018 fee schedule is $67,225. The tuition fee doesn’t cover other fees in the academic year. They are very proud. That was the first time I knew about liberal education. We all pay attention to the big schools, the UC, Harvard, Cornell, Yale. All know the schools are large, but not emphasized is how they are all Liberal Arts. In fact, liberal arts colleges are the direction we need to go,” said Dr. Minh.

Comprehensive Knowledge

He said translating “Liberal Arts” into Vietnamese does not encompass all of what Liberal Arts is. Dr. Minh compared traditional universities with liberal arts saying that many people are confused, that parents and students are not clear what constitutes liberal arts and what the liberal arts means.

What makes Liberal Arts different is that it is not like training colleges in former Soviet or Vietnamese systems. Instead, education provides comprehensive knowledge: the ability of the individual, especially the methods and skills of a graduate to be able to adapt to the world fully,” he said.

He also recalled the period of the University of Vietnam in the past (in the spirit of liberal education), but wrongly applied for transfer to another school after two years of general education that makes the whole society bewildered and confused.

“The whole world does not do that,” Dr. Minh said.

He elaborated by saying that intensive training in a discipline such as training a mathematician, philosopher, or historian requires them to have some basic same training. It is a comprehensive education.

“The issue we are discussing here is whether we want to be basic or intensive. This is hard. We are working at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. If training history, then you have 4 years of only studying history. Only study travel 4 years if focusing on travel. Mathematicians have 4 years of only math. I think that’s a very basic mistake. Schoolboys are curious yet they leave baffled. Obviously now, mathematics must know about art. Literature must also know about logic… So “Liberal Arts” will give people a lot,” he said.

He said that he combined the experience of the university where he studied in Germany and Pomona College where one learner would probably have 1 major and 1-2 minor. “I studied Southeast Asia while I was in Germany. In addition, I studied two additional disciplines. I can study Mathematics, Drawing, or Theology… But I chose two minor sciences, Political Science and European History. Because my strength is history, a history degree transferred to Southeast Asian studies well. Taking the other two branches was excellent. I broadened my background from world history to Southeast Asia.

So how can he become expert? The program allows you to become an expert or do something that does not lead to being an expert. In Germany, the majors take about 50-60% of your credits out of the 120 credits you study. 70 credits of the Southeast Asian area was more than enough. The two sub-branches were only 50 credits. So, I can still be a Southeast Asian expert and have knowledge of the other two. You can not say you can not become an expert, but you can not say you are confused or bewildered,” he continued.

Looking at Vietnam’s higher education system, the Professor recommended Vietnam redesign curriculum and move away from the training program structure.

“A student in a four-year history program, goes from ancient and medieval history, to modern history, to Vietnamese history, and then to African history… That is just history with more history. Students are very bored and confused. I recommend instead of taking 120 credits in history, students can earn 50 or 80 credits and it will come out the same. The remaining credits can be about 20 or 10 in economics, and a foreign language in addition to English.

The model of Vietnamese universities has long been specialized in a field and deep enough to become an expert. I assure you, 4 years later no one becomes  an expert. But innovation in Vietnam is always difficult. Even the bachelor of history adjusted to the training of 70-80 credits would be enough. That still leaves us with a difficult, different argument to be had.”