Is Liberal Arts Education a Good Model for Arab Universities?
The liberal arts philosophy of higher education has resurfaced lately in the Arab world due to two important developments: a) the opening of a number of ‘American’ universities (by name and/or by system of education); b) the growing debates about the urgency for reform of the higher education system(s) in the Arab world. Among the latter series of discussions, a Task Force on science at universities of the Muslim world (with a focus on the teaching of science at those universities) recently recommended the adoption of a model for science education rather close to the liberal arts higher education model, i.e. with a greater diversity of courses and a strong base of general education, including a good dose of humanities, social sciences, communication, and languages.
Could the liberal arts approach be the solution even to the problems of science education and research production in the Arab world? That is a difficult question to address.
The state of universities (generally) in the Arab world, and the state of science (teaching, research, and outreach) is known to be poor. There are enough indicators to ascertain this claim, and in this essay I provide a very brief review of the evidence (world rankings, academic publications, research spending, absence of academics and scientists from the media and other public arenas, etc.). There are additional problems, which the above-mentioned Task Force diagnosed, namely: heavily focused curricula, lack of balance between natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, languages, communication, etc., lack of balance between pure and applied sciences, heavy syllabi in science courses and programs, the language of instruction, the effect of religion, and other issues.
Having briefly reviewed the problem, I make the liberal education pitch simply and clearly: adopt broad-based, general-education curricula for students majoring in all disciplines, including science and engineering, widen the skill sets of all graduates: mastery of two languages, oral and written communication skills, essential knowledge of natural science, humanities, social sciences, numeracy and basic statistical analysis, etc.
KeywordsHigher education Arab universities Liberal arts Reforms Multi-disciplinarity
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