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Professor Brian Clarke began to serve as Dean of UIC’s Division of Culture and Creativity in September 2018.
He became a Chartered Chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1994. He has also maintained
a varied and rich musical career as both cellist and conductor. Professor Clarke has been engaged in both
teaching and administration as a member of the senior management in different Higher Education Institutes
in UK and Asia since the mid-70s.

When invited to write this article, I decided to make the view a very personal one and not delve into current and previous definitions of ‘Liberal Arts’. I wanted to reflect upon my education and measure it against my perception of liberal arts education – I decided that it did not in any way reflect my view.

If I had been asked about liberal arts education 40 years ago, I would have probably been very dismissive; my education focused on the hard-edged physics, chemistry and mathematics curriculum during my later years in school and at university. At that stage in my life, the focus was on family, career, making an impression and, of course, promotion. However, age and hindsight has certainly mellowed my view.

Looking back over my career, I sense that even though my priorities were career focused, the ‘added value’ to my life arose from not only elements of my career, but other experiences and skills that I was developing as a part of living and working. Having parallel careers of musician and teacher were fundamentally significant in the quality of my life. Travelling, discovering art, literature and the experience of working with colleagues and particularly young people, in a creative and entrepreneurial environment, were elements which became increasingly significant. Those elements were never a part of my learning curve in formal education, however they have become key factors in my broader education.

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To be analytical, I asked myself what was missing in my formal education – well, simply the formal opportunity to broaden my educational experience, become less self-centred and expand horizons. There was no opportunity to have any element of ‘liberal arts’ education. Music opportunities to play were confined to sneaking out of lessons, lunch breaks or weekend gigs. The one exception being the annual school concert when there was a three-line whip freeing up all musicians from their academic timetable, much to the chagrin of the teachers!  The terms interdisciplinary knowledge, transferable skills and innovative power were a distant glimmer being a member of society and being employable. Thank goodness, most schools and universities have now changed to embrace those broader skills.

In fairness to my school, the focus was on academic success, rather than creating ‘a rounded person’. In that measure of success, it was very successful, but did it benefit most of the school population? I remember my disbelief, that as a science student in school, I was required to study ‘use of English’ as a subject, whereas the arts students were considered sufficiently broadly educated as not to need even a basic knowledge of science and maths! This experience was entirely analogous at University, where the ultimate measure was not employability, but academic success.

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It was at this point in the writing process, that I thought I needed to consult and determine how others defined ‘liberal arts education’. This is in no way an academic analysis but serves as the basis of my subsequent thoughts.

It is interesting to compare the different approaches of East and West. (Not to be accused of plagiarism, I must acknowledge the use of Wikipedia in this part of my article) It seems that during the Zhou Dynasty (1122–256 BCE), students were required to master the "liù yì" (六艺) (Six Arts): Rites (礼), Music (乐), Archery (射), Charioteering (御), Calligraphy (书), Mathematics (数). Men who excelled in these six arts were thought to have reached the state of perfection, the perfect gentleman. The requirement of students to master the six arts parallels the Western concept of the Renaissance man (a cultured man who was knowledgeable, educated, or proficient in a wide range of fields).

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Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. From the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century)

In Western medieval societies, liberal arts was the term given to an education based on classical antiquity. It was meant to be a practical education which developed mental capacity. It was designed in the late medieval period (12th/13th centuries) using ideas from Ancient Greek and Roman culture. The students were meant to be young gentlemen from respectable and important families. In medieval Europe the seven liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium). Innovators and polymaths, for example, Da Vinci were considered the embodiment of this culture and became know by the 20th century term ‘Renaissance man’. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning.

UIC with its unique vision and mission of advancing the internationalization of Chinese higher education is taking the lead in implementing liberal arts education in China. Clearly evident is how it embraces both the Western and Eastern concepts of liberal arts education.

Returning to my original thoughts, I wonder how differently my career would have fared had I the privilege to study at UIC?

(You are welcome to share your views on Liberal Arts and email MPRO at mpro@uic.edu.cn.)

Written by Brian Clarke
(republished from UIC magazine New Dimensions Issue 7)