11/16/2012 05:15 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Fueling the Fire: The Liberal Arts Have Come to Asia, and It's a Big Deal


Even as China's economy cools a little, educational partnerships with Asia are heating up.

For years, Asia has been the largest international recruiting zone for American universities. The overwhelming majority of international students in U.S. colleges and universities have come from China, India and South Korea, and many of these students remain in the U.S. as leading entrepreneurs, artists, educators, lawyers, etc., for decades after they first encounter American culture through higher education.

Asian families place a high premium on quality education, understanding its practical function in their children's career paths. And with many Asian economies faring better than the West through the fiscal turbulence of recent years, Asian parents often have the means to send their children off to school in America.

American higher education is the global standard. On each of my three visits to Asia over the last year, colleagues at institutions in Hong Kong, Beijing and Seoul have noted their deep appreciation for the liberal arts approach available in the U.S.

University systems in Asia operate somewhat differently, and they are at a significant crossroads. State-run institutions traditionally take a pragmatic pre-professional approach to higher education, training students in highly specialized fields for focused careers. Now these institutions have begun to discover that such laser-focused curricula may be more of a hindrance than a help as graduates seek competitive jobs in globalized markets. Many graduates of these universities lack the broad knowledge base necessary in our global economy, where jobs and careers change with ever-increasing speed. A liberal arts education endows students with the ability to think broadly across a range of subjects, enabling them to think outside the box.

In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fisher writes that Asian countries have begun to see value in strengthening their own institutions of higher education by introducing the liberal arts into otherwise rigorously technical programs. They're recognizing that a well-rounded education not only brings personal enrichment; it produces creative, flexible, critical-thinking professionals capable of success in any number of fields. The liberal arts are a pragmatic approach to higher education.

So what does this mean for my Boston-area liberal arts college?

On the one hand, it means that Asian students and their families are more interested now than they ever have been in pursuing the liberal arts. Gordon College, of course, has a vested interest in making the case for our institution as a great place for this to happen. So we still view Asia as an incredibly important area for traditional recruitment.

On the other hand, Asia's burgeoning liberal arts zeal opens up countless possibilities for educational partnerships between Eastern and Western institutions. This, to me, is one of the most exciting developments in higher education. As Asia establishes its own culture of intellectual exchange, students and faculty from both the East and the West stand to benefit from working in the other's context.

These are major opportunities to stretch our minds -- opportunities our school is jumping at. Gordon Provost Janel Curry, who has been working for years through the Fulbright program to bring the liberal arts model to City University of Hong Kong, has recently helped me to expand our College's exchange and internship opportunities in Hong Kong and China. We have already welcomed to our campus two delegations of Asian educators, including one from the prestigious Beijing Electronics Institute for Science and Technology. Additionally, this summer we are launching a new series of exciting global internships sending a number of Gordon students to Asia each year in addition to our robust study-abroad programs, in which 40 percent of Gordon undergraduates participate for a semester or more.

As a Christian institution as well as a liberal arts college, we see an opportunity for Gordon to play a crucially important role in the flourishing church in Asia. With Christianity spreading as quickly as it has in the region, there is great need to build up Christian leaders -- leaders with theological training, understanding of church history, and a solid grasp of contemporary social and philosophical thought. Our students, in turn, have much to learn about the vibrant threads of Eastern Christianity -- its missions and outreach, its passion for prayer, its respect for the contemplative.

I'm becoming accustomed to the 13-hour flight from Boston to Beijing and the 16-hour marathon flight to Hong Kong. By the end of this year, I'll have spent a total of five weeks in Asia -- and I expect I'll continue to travel there many more times in the coming years. Our societies have much to learn from one another, and the opportunity has never presented itself more clearly than now. As the liberal arts become a common language between us, we will work to find creative, mutually beneficial ways to fuel our cultural exchange.