Making the Case for Liberal Education in Vietnam

A Fulbright Specialist Highlights the Economic Benefits of Critical Thinking

By Stephanie Genkin

Liberal education has a strong and dedicated proponent in Clark University’s Mary-Ellen Boyle. For decades, the associate management professor has taught and advocated for liberal education, which she believes prepares students for the real world by helping them develop communication and critical thinking skills, the ability to problem-solve, and a basic understanding of ethics and social responsibility.

Boyle wanted to test her beliefs in another culture.

She applied to the Fulbright Specialist Program, and after being approved to join the Fulbright Specialist Roster, was matched with a project at Hoa Sen University in Vietnam to provide technical assistance to faculty.

“I’ve always been interested in Vietnam,” says Boyle, adding that she was the third Fulbright Specialist invited to the university and was keen to build on the work of her predecessors.

Located in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoa Sen University concentrates on science, technology, and business, training students to work in these rapidly growing fields. There are few classes exploring humanities or the social sciences, hallmarks of a liberal arts education in the U.S.

One of Boyle’s challenges was to impress upon the faculty, staff, and students that a liberal education is compatible with specialization and can actually enhance professional training.

“I don’t think it should be either/or,” says Boyle, who as Associate Provost and Dean of the College at Clark University was instrumental in facilitating the integration of LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) into the university’s undergraduate curriculum. The pioneering program links liberal education with practice through internships, study abroad experience and projects.

Boyle also served as the faculty director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Department and a professor at the Graduate School of Management where she teaches Business in Society, Entrepreneurship-Social Impact, Global Business Seminar, and Applying the Art & Science of Management.

In Vietnam, her role was to show how liberal education’s values and ways of thinking could be incorporated into instruction to better equip students to manage the complexity and rapid changes in an emerging economy.

“It was a brand new idea for some of the faculty,” admits Boyle.

She didn’t lecture. Instead, Boyle offered 15 three-hour workshops for faculty and professional staff. She introduced tools, ideas, and techniques to support more active learning as opposed to trying to promote large-scale curriculum reform.

For instance, Boyle modeled an interactive teaching style and facilitated discussions which she hoped instructors would emulate in their classrooms in place of the strictly passive learning style that currently dominates.

Typically, instructors lecture to students taking notes, who then commit the information to memory and show their mastery of it by repeating it back on exams, a common education practice throughout much of Asia.

The university’s provost, Loc Pham Quoc, supports the initiative to emphasize critical thinking skills and a more active approach to teaching. He was introduced to the American philosophy of liberal education during his time as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he earned his Ph.D.

Although she spent most of her waking hours working, Boyle says her Fulbright Specialist experience recharged her batteries.

“There are so many benefits. [The experience] can reenergize you in ways that you didn’t know you needed,” she says.

Adding, “It made me rethink the purpose of higher education.”

Stephanie Genkin is a media and content strategist for World Learning, a non-profit organization that focuses on international development, education and exchange programs — including the Fulbright Specialist Program. She was a producer at CNN for 15 years and before that a freelance print reporter based in the Middle East. She earned an MPhil. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College and was a Fulbright Scholar to Jordan.

The Fulbright Specialist Program was established in 2001 by the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to enable U.S. professionals and scholars to work on short-term projects overseas in conjunction with local host institutions.

For more information about the Fulbright Specialist Program or to apply, please go to: https://fulbrightspecialist.worldlearning.org/the-fulbright-specialist-program/