The primary mission of the liberal arts, says President Valerie Smith, is to teach students to think — and think critically.
“No other type of institution so effectively prepares students to do the work necessary to sort out fact from fiction, and valid arguments from specious claims,” she says. “We teach students to think critically, to write and speak persuasively, to solve problems, and to work in collaboration with others.”
Smith imparted that message in her keynote address for the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) Shun Hing Distinguished Lecture Series in November, extolling the value of a liberal arts education for students and the world.
Smith received an honorary Doctor of Letters from HKBU, in recognition of a dynamic first year at Swarthmore.
In announcing Smith’s award, HKBU noted that: “Upon her arrival at Swarthmore, she identified several priorities, including attracting more low-income and first-generation students for an exceptional undergraduate experience. She has also cited a strong commitment to curricular innovation and to strengthening relationships between the College and the region.”
“This recognition is not only an honor for me personally, but it acknowledges the role that Swarthmore College, its faculty, and its alumni have played across the globe,” Smith told the crowd, including Swarthmore alumni, who had gathered for HBKU’s commencement. “I look forward to building on the relationship between our two institutions that share a common mission.”
Smith’s keynote address, “Liberal Arts Education: Challenges and Prospects,” highlighted the 60th anniversary of the lecture series.
“Contrary to all-too-common assertions,” she said, “employers across a wide range of areas — finance, engineering, business, public service, media, and cultural institutions, to name only a few — are eager to hire graduates of liberal arts institutions.”
Intrinsic to that value, she says, is preparing students in the liberal arts for the unexpected, exposing them to an array of disciplines.
“We push them beyond their zones of comfort and require them to gain some familiarity with multiple ways of knowing,” she said.
It is also vital to ensure that students develop into productive and responsible citizens, said Smith, which means offering opportunities beyond the classroom; recruiting an increasingly diverse population of students, faculty, and staff and cultivating more inclusive communities.
“We recognize that higher education is an engine of social mobility that has the capacity to improve the life chances of individuals from less affluent backgrounds,” said Smith. “To achieve excellence, we must seek and recruit talent from across the nation and the globe and from every socioeconomic group.”
The other speakers at the event, which also featured a panel discussion, included Pericles Lewis, founding president and professor of humanities at Yale-NUS College in Singapore; Cheng Kai-ming, emeritus professor at The University of Hong Kong; and Roland Chin, president of HKBU.
HKBU also conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters to accomplished filmmaker, producer, and professor Elizabeth Daley; a Doctor of Science to distinguished math scholar and professor Martin Hairer; and a Doctor of Social Sciences to entrepreneur David Mong Tak-yeung.
HKBU was founded in 1956 as a post-secondary college committed to the provision of “whole person education.” Today it encompasses eight schools offering a wide range of associate, undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs and is considered one of Asia’s finest institutions of higher learning.