Why Developing Countries Should Not Neglect Liberal Education


By: David E. Bloom and Henry Rosovsky

Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts….
(Thomas Jefferson, addressing the benefits to society of a liberal education, in an 1813 letter to John Adams)


Western civilization is home to a long tradition of liberal education, defined as an emphasis on the whole development of an individual apart from (narrower) occupational training. The beginnings of this philosophy can perhaps be traced back as far as ancient Greece and more clearly to the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) of medieval times. That tradition has continued, and today liberal education is an important segment of higher education in all developed countries. Its role in nurturing leaders and informed citizens is recognized in both the public and private sectors. Global statistics are difficult to obtain, but our impression is that interest in liberal education is growing in many parts of the West.

The contrast with developing countries is stark. Especially since many of these countries achieved independence after World War II, liberal education has come to be viewed as a luxury and not a necessity. This is reflected in the curricula of both secondary and higher education, where vocational training is frequently favored. Liberal education has been shunned by governments as elitist, emblematic of the values of hated Western colonialism, and too expensive. Very recently there have been a few signs that these attitudes are changing, but recognition of the benefits of liberal or general education remains far from common.

We will argue that liberal education should play a vital role in the colleges and universities of the developing world–in undergraduate as well as graduate-professional studies. What follows represents our speculations based on research and observation in many different countries. Of course, we must recognize that each country is, to some extent, a special case, and that offering proof for all that we advocate is not possible. We believe, however, that our conjectures are backed by history and logic.

Liberal education in developing countries

As cited in the recent report of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000), which explores the current state and future of higher education in developing countries, a liberally educated person is described as someone who:

  • can think and write clearly, effectively, and critically, and who can communicate with precision, cogency, and force;
  • has a critical appreciation of the ways in which we gain knowledge and understanding of the universe, of society, and of ourselves;
  • has a broad knowledge of other cultures and other times, and is able to make decisions based on reference to the wider world and to the historical forces that have shaped it;
  • has some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems; and
  • has achieved depth in some field of knowledge.

    In developing countries, persons with these qualities have traditionally tended to come from wealthy elites. This has become less true in the West as liberal education has expanded beyond a few selective institutions. In the United States, for example, the annual number and percentage of university graduates with liberal education degrees diminished and then increased again during the last 30 years.

    In some developing countries, the manpower needs of rapid industrialization have helped slow the spread of liberal education. Instead of giving its students a broad, general education, the Soviet higher education system focused heavily on vocational and other specialized training. With the rapid growth of Soviet industry beginning in the 1930s, this vocational model subsequently spread first to its non-Russian republics and satellite states, and then further afield. Echoing observations that could apply to many developing and transition countries, the political philosopher Irakly Areshidze (1999) has described what happened under the Soviet system in Georgia:

    Upon acceptance [at University], for the next five years students would pursue an education focused on giving them [a] specific, limited set of vocational knowledge in their given field. Students would memorize information from textbooks and be lectured at by the Professors. Students would seldom engage in analytical, critical thinking, class discussion and writing.

    In many developing countries, this lack of critical thinking might often have been viewed favorably by those in power. As Lao-Tzu said in The Way of Lao-tzu over 2,500 years ago, “People are difficult to govern because they have too much knowledge.” Many post-colonial dictators have, for the sake of their own survival, understandably been keener to invest in vocational education than in liberal education.

    Donor policy has abetted this focus on vocational training. Organizations such as the World Bank have traditionally promoted infrastructure and strong institutions as keys to development. These require skilled workers. Building physical and transport infrastructure requires engineers; setting up a strong financial system requires bankers and accountants; and establishing a health system requires personnel trained in modern medicine. It is not surprising, therefore, that higher education systems in many developing countries have been geared toward early specialization aimed at producing “job-ready” graduates.

    There are other important reasons why families may prefer to send their children to schools that emphasize specialized job skills. Investment in university education, both in terms of direct and opportunity costs, is a major financial undertaking for the majority of poor-country families. Although tuition may be free or heavily subsidized, books and living expenses have to be paid for, and sending a child to college when he or she could be earning money for the family can be a tremendous sacrifice. A desire for a quick return on investment is therefore understandable, and professional courses are often seen as providing a faster and more certain return than liberal education.

    The need for liberal education

    By teaching students how to think rather than what to think, and how to learn rather than what to learn, a liberal education produces graduates who are better able to adapt and respond to the demands of a fast-changing economic and social environment. But in a rush to respond to a rapidly changing world, it is easy to overlook long-term objectives. The view that engineers should learn solely the technical aspects of their trade, for example, neglects the social and environmental impacts of their work. Skills in road design and maintenance are clearly essential for all countries, but if planners and policy-makers do not recognize and take account of the views of local populations, negative social impacts of a project may outweigh, and eventually threaten, the positive economic outcomes. As another example, genetically modified (GM) foods are creating an enormous and increasingly urgent need for a new body of technical expertise in developing countries. Such expertise is needed if these countries are to take advantage of the benefits of such foods (e.g., nutritional, health, cost), while seeking to minimize the risks (e.g., new invasive species; new plant, animal, and human diseases with no known cure; and greater agricultural dependency on developed-country seed providers). GM foods also raise many complex issues that go beyond science, including matters related to ethics, public regulation, business practice, community life, globalization, and world governance. It is hard to imagine countries addressing these and similar issues effectively without the leadership, or at least the aid, of individuals with a strong liberal education.

    Many of the benefits of a liberal education are tangible in the form of higher incomes and accrue predominantly to the individuals who receive the education. But there are also intangible benefits, many of which are enjoyed by other members of society. Although it is difficult to offer decisive evidence, we can think of six main channels through which society may be expected to benefit from liberal education programs. Naturally, their applicability and importance will vary from country to country. All forms of higher education create national benefits but liberal education creates a particular set of benefits through the channels delineated below.

    The first channel is economic. We think that business leaders are more likely to innovate when they have been stimulated by the broad range of studies that typically comprise liberal education. For developing economies, such innovation can mean moving into new, more productive fields, and adapting technologies developed elsewhere to create new jobs, and reduce poverty at home. Liberal education, which encourages people to question and challenge conventional thinking and practices, can be an important catalyst for increasing an economy’s fluidity. In addition, as Thomas Jefferson observed, liberal education can raise the value placed by a society on merit, as opposed to status or wealth at birth. In many developing countries, nepotism has hampered economic development.

    The second channel is the impact on policy-making. There is no standard recipe for reaching development goals, but much of the evidence we have suggests that good governance, good macroeconomic management, attention to education and health, and integration into the world economy are useful ingredients. All of these instruments of development (some of which–like health and education–are goals in themselves) require both generalist as well as specialist knowledge and skills.

    The impact of liberal education on political participation is a third possible source of public benefit. Strong leaders help move countries forward, but an informed and engaged citizenry can often serve as a necessary and constructive counterbalance to the power of leaders. Representative democracy, which has contributed powerfully to long-run economic and social development in the West, depends crucially on having a critical mass of citizens who are well informed and able to assimilate and work with complex ideas. By spreading knowledge and increasing debate, broadening liberal education away from elite groups will tend to lead to a more involved citizenry.

    The fourth channel is the effect on the cohesion of societies. By exposing students to a wide range of differing views and encouraging them to make connections across different disciplines and cultures, we would hope that liberal education promotes tolerance and understanding of others. Liberal education can also foster a sense of community and of working together to achieve goals. And by broadening and deepening knowledge of history, the arts, and the sciences, it nurtures both pride in one’s own culture and respect for others. Liberal education can therefore have a strong influence on public spirit, which developing and developed countries alike require if their societies are to work together to solve problems and seize opportunities.

    The fifth channel by which liberal education benefits society stems from the possibility of reducing brain drain.Students who have an opportunity to receive a well-designed, broad-based education in their own countries are more likely to pursue their studies at home and avoid the cost of going abroad. This may confer an added benefit on women, whose families may be reluctant to let them study overseas. Similarly, those students who do study in other countries are more likely to return home, knowing that they will find a stimulating environment. A related benefit derives from the fact that a liberal education promotes a culture of lifelong learning, which abets the development of a vibrant intellectual culture and encourages professionals trained in other countries to work in their own country, for that country’s benefit.

    The final channerelates to globalization. We believe that liberal education promotes cohesion not just within, but also among, societies. Studying the world’s religions, for example, can help students see the connections between them at the same time as understanding and valuing the differences. Literature, history, and language shed light on a country’s past and present ways of thinking. In an increasingly interconnected world, empathy with other cultures can encourage both peaceful relations and productive business and cultural interaction.

    Globalization is also changing the economic climate. Trade between countries enables many economies to move into new areas. Successful economic development is generally accompanied by a move up the industrial value chain. Training in a specific area of expertise, therefore, quickly becomes obsolete, and as individuals’ careers become more varied, more flexible skills, as well as the ability to quickly learn new skills, are required. Rapidly developing technology exacerbates this requirement as the machines of the future will bear little resemblance to the machines of the past. Knowledge has become a core competitive advantage for both individuals and economies, and the generalist skills nurtured by liberal education appear poised to grow in value relative to more specialist abilities.

    New ways of working are accompanying the trend towards global integration. The increasing quantity of knowledge means that, as Michael Gibbons (1998) has argued, “no matter where one is, more than 99 per cent of the knowledge needed lies elsewhere.” New connections must therefore be developed, across disciplines and across cultures. Networks of expertise, which “bubble up like molasses on the stove” as intellectual resources shift from “area to area, problem to problem, grouping to grouping,” are likely to propel economies forward. This kind of thinking and working is a key feature of a good liberal education, which encourages students to make connections across disciplines and draw on others’ ideas, while working together to advance learning and tackle problems.

    We understand that the connection between social and private benefits ascribed to these channels is a mixture of hope and reality. Opportunities can remain unexploited, and excellent education alone cannot prevent all manner of bad outcomes. (Nazi Germany is an obvious example of bad outcomes arising despite a world-famous national system of schools.) Nevertheless, the channels do reflect what is possible and what has happened in different societies as they have moved from poverty to greater well-being.

    Developing a liberal education

    Several important questions face those attempting to design a liberal education program in developing countries.

    The first question is what to teach. Liberal education in the West has evolved over time to a broad-based menu, which takes in history, politics, literature, languages, and the physical and biological sciences. Developing countries have the opportunity to learn from the experience of the West, but they also need to take into account their own economic, social, and political environment. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) has recently established a university that offers a liberal education and that aims to reflect the needs and aspirations of Bangladeshi society by producing graduates who will work to alleviate poverty and to overcome the country’s severe problems in the areas of health care, education, and employment. The report of the Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000, 85) summarizes their strategy for designing a liberal education curriculum as follows:

    BRAC started with a significant program of research among potential employers, students and parents, as well as successful local universities. BRAC wanted to … ensure not only financial viability through good initial enrollment rates, [but also] that the university’s graduate stream would prove attractive to prospective local employers; this, in turn, would link back to maintaining enrollment on an ongoing basis.

    BRAC’s research found that employers were seeking graduates with analytical abilities and skills in writing, use of the English language, and communication. The ability to think independently and take the initiative on tasks was also highly valued. BRAC realized that the involvement of key local stakeholders in the curriculum design process is perhaps the best way to maximize its benefits to society. Consistent with the type of liberal education we are espousing, undergraduates at BRAC are required to pursue a diverse set of topics, including a substantial number of courses outside of their main focus area.

    The content of liberal education curricula will naturally vary across countries. Each country will need to take lessons learned elsewhere and adapt them to its own needs. For example, while South Africa, where English is widely spoken, may not need the same language courses as Korea, it may need to focus particularly on the country’s need to build strong institutions. Accordingly, subjects like law, philosophy, economics, and politics might be relatively more important. Designing a liberal education program offers the opportunity to ask fundamental questions about what matters to a particular society. It offers the opportunity to focus on a country’s history, its culture, and its values. Doing this will help energize the whole higher education system–and, in time, may change the way a society thinks about itself.

    Having determined what to teach, educators next need to decide how to teach. The rote-learning-passive-learner model that typifies so many institutions of higher education in developing countries makes this a particularly important issue. New teaching methods that require students to take a more active role fit well with the more collaborative ways of working that an increasingly knowledge-based society requires. A well-delivered liberal education can give graduates a head start in developing the necessary skills in working with others to address problems and create solutions.

    Finding faculty who can take part in interactive learning is, in fact, a major obstacle to the development of liberal education in the developing world, because the tradition of “intentional learning” is so weak.4

    The needed reforms will only take place if the political aspects are realistically taken into account. Policymakers and stakeholders alike must acknowledge that while the technical and narrowly pedagogical aspects of such reform are important, they are only a part of the story. A wide range of interested parties–from students to parents to educators of all levels, from business to donors–have contributions to make, and if any group feels ignored, the success of the reform may be jeopardized.

    The third question facing curriculum designers is how to make students aware of liberal education’s merits. At present, as we have seen, specialized training often has a stronger lure than more general subjects. Enlisting employers in promoting liberal education is critical. The National University of Singapore, for example, has launched a new liberal education curriculum for some of its undergraduates, with the ambitious goal that those students will be comparable to those of more-established universities in wealthy countries (www.nus.edu.sg). This effort has the support of local companies, whose pronouncements about the course’s value are likely to have a strong effect on parents and students alike (Task Force, 90). The availability of a liberal education curriculum by itself is unlikely to stem the tide of technical training. Concerted efforts are therefore needed to raise awareness of its importance for both individuals and society.

    Access is the final major issue to address. Because of its breadth and typically low student-teacher ratios, liberal education tends to be expensive relative to specialized professional training, and therefore not all students in poorer countries can be offered a full course of liberal education.5 Those universities with established traditions in the field will be able to provide the more intensive programs, but in order for liberal education to contribute more fully to society, expansion beyond elite groups is critical. Pakistan’s private Aga Khan University (AKU) uses some of its endowment to fund scholarships to extend its fledgling liberal arts and sciences course beyond wealthy groups.6

    Although it is difficult to generalize about this topic because systems of professional education vary so widely, establishing general education as a component of technical and professional courses is one promising way of expanding access. This would help broaden the learning of specialists and give them a better background to cope with changes in social and economic conditions. Promoting liberal education in professional courses would also help such students incorporate broader societal goals into their interactions with a wide range of people in their countries. Students could be given liberal arts education for a year before moving on to their core course; alternatively, the two could run concurrently. Consistent with this goal, the AKU states (www.aku.edu) that graduates from its medical school should be able to “provide leadership in issues concerning society.”

    Most developing countries will find it neither possible nor necessary to give all its college and university students a liberal education. Indeed, not all, or even most, students need to have a generalist background. Constructing a system of higher education in which various types of institutions serve distinct purposes will be essential for developing countries, and some institutions will, inevitably, offer very little in the way of liberal education. (This applies as well in developed countries.) But increasing the number of students with the option of at least a basic grounding in liberal education will help shed the elitist label and strengthen the national stock of human capital. As the Peril and Promise report (Task Force, 87) suggests, higher education institutions “must become more tolerant at points of entry . . . ensuring that those who have not had a broad secondary education have the chance to catch up and fulfill their potential.” In this spirit, AKU’s liberal arts program is considering the possibility of bridging courses to help secondary school students from poorer backgrounds and from neighboring countries to transcend the gap.


    In implementing a liberal education program, policy-makers and educators currently face several challenges. As well as designing courses and making them fit society’s needs, promotion of the benefits of liberal education will be needed along with efforts to attract students from beyond the traditional target audience.

    These efforts promise to be extremely worthwhile. In the past, liberal education has been regarded by many developing-world policy-makers as a luxury, and only meant for the rich. Today, it is a much more a necessity. Leaders with the vision to look beyond the short-term economic benefits of a highly specialized technical education have the opportunity to make significant long-term contributions to their countries’ development.

    David E. Bloom is Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Henry Rosovsky is Geyser University Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

    1. Larry Rosenberg and Mark Weston provided helpful comments and assistance.

    2. Participants at a seminar of the British Council held in Bath, UK, in March 2002, noted that raising the question “What makes an educated person?” could in itself “be a potential catalyst for wider curricular reform.” The full report of the seminar is at www.tfhe.net/seminar/report_of_the_seminar.htm.

    3. As to the current situation, Carol M. Baker, in “Liberal Education for a Global Society” (a 2000 Carnegie Corporation of New York report) says, “In 1995, 40 percent of the degrees granted were in the liberal arts. And the number of liberal arts undergraduate degrees reached an all-time high of 466,000.” The report is available at www.carnegie.org/sub/pubs/libarts.pdf.

    4. A new report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities points out the importance of “intentional” learning—that students who learn with a purpose, learn more and are much better prepared to use what they have learned for the betterment of society. See Greater Expectations: A New vision of Learning as a Nation Goes to College, available at www.greaterexpectations.org. In referring to the U.S. situation, the report states: “The best undergraduate education for the twenty-first century will be based on a liberal education that produces an individual who is intentional about learning and life, empowered, informed, and responsible.”

    5. The emerging view in the United States is different. The Association of American Colleges and Universities says that liberal education should be available to all students. See www.greaterexpectations.org.

    6. Aga Khan University (1994). The Future of the Aga Khan University: Evolution of a Vision. Report of the Chancellor’s Commission. Available at www.akunet.org/aku.

    Areshidze, Ivakly. 1999. Liberal education and self-government in Georgia. http://www.psigeorgia.org

    Gibbons, Michael. 1998. Speech delivered at World Conference in Higher Education. Paris:UNESCO, 5-9 October.

    Task Force on Higher Education and Society. 2000. Higher education in developing countries: Peril and promise. Washington, DC: World Bank/UNESCO

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