Macalester's own Tocqueville examines liberal arts college culture

By Peter Wright

Chunchun Wang, a Ph.D. student from China, is studying Macalester this semester to detail the “core essentials” of a liberal arts education, something that is rare in her home country.”In China we don’t have liberal arts colleges at all,” Wang said. “Something that may be very common for you may be new to me.”

Provost Diane Michelfelder said that Macalester invited Wang to study here because her work can provide a fresh perspective on the college. She said Wang can help Macalester learn more about the needs of the higher education system in China and how to become more involved.

“There is a lot of interest at the moment in China in expanding general education as part of a student’s educational experience,” Michelfelder said.

Wang has been at Macalester for two months and works out of a cramped office, normally used as an independent study room in the library. She still has more research to do, but some of her initial observations have shed light on two different cultural approaches to education.

She said that syllabi and homework schedules handed out at the beginning of the year are rare in China.

In addition, she said, professors speak to much larger crowds and small classes are rare. Huazhong University of Science and Technology, where Wang is getting her Ph.D., is one of the top schools in China and has 56,319 students.

She said writing is not emphasized in her university as much as it is at Macalester and said she was surprised at the amount of writing professors expect from students here.

Wang was also surprised at how much time American students have to choose a major. In China, she said, students are required to decide what their focus will be before their first college class.

“We have very specialized education,” she said.

On an institutional level, Wang said, Chinese colleges are not as interested in trying to keep students as are American institutions, particularly the private ones. She said that colleges in China never worry about losing funding because almost all of them are run by the government.

Unlike the American tendency to associate “private colleges,” with top-ranking universities and liberal arts colleges, in China private schools are respected less than public ones.

“Generally speaking, the private colleges [in China] are not good at all,” Wang said.

The higher education system in China breaks into three distinct levels, Wang said. The top level is composed of all the four-year universities in the nation. Within those schools, 39 are part of Project 985, an effort to develop world-renowned schools in China that was started in 1998 by their president, Jiang Zemin.

Wang is aiming her research at those top colleges because they receive more funding than the others. She said her research could be used to help create programs for undergraduates with a liberal arts approach at the big universities.

“They want to learn something from American higher education,” Wang said. “Comparatively speaking, American higher education is doing better than ours in some ways.”

Visiting scholars are nothing new at Macalester, Michelfelder said. The college often hosts faculty who are working on their dissertations.

But, she said, Wang’s project is unique.

“To the best of my knowledge this is the first time that we have ever had anyone here for whom Macalester itself was the subject of their dissertation research,” Michelfelder said.

Wang said she first found out about Macalester when History Professor Yue-Him Tam made a presentation at her school. When she had settled on a topic for her dissertation, her advisor, who had visited the Twin Cities several times, reminded her of Macalester. That’s when she contacted Michelfelder about researching here.

Wang said she wanted to study one of the top liberal arts colleges in America because it just made sense to review the best possible programs over the others.

In her time here since January, Wang said she has had to opportunity to sit in on some classes and speak with several professors and department coordinators, a position that does not exist in China. She said that Macalester’s friendly environment is particularly helpful.

“[The professors] are so warm-hearted, and also they are so happy to talk to me about their teaching,” Wang said.

Wang will be staying at Macalester through May 18.