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An American Education Model Abroad

Thoughts on the international future of liberal education

By Samuel Martín-Barbero

August 1, 2023

Since its origins, American liberal education has become a preeminent model of higher learning, blending the “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” approach of the Old World (taking inspiration from Oxford and Cambridge universities) with the “knowledge for the sake of freedom” approach of the New World. While the model still represents the gold standard, in recent decades, colleges and universities in other countries—particularly in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Singapore—have adapted parts of the framework to become education powerhouses. In addition to employing a liberal education philosophy—which advances integration of learning across the curriculum and cocurriculum, and between academic and experiential learning, to foster versatility, openness, and abilities necessary for work, citizenship, and life—these institutions have found success because they have focused on cultivating global awareness among their students. This is also one of our priorities at Franklin University Switzerland.

Other higher education institutions, including ones in Asia and Africa, while influenced by the ideals of American liberal education, are deeply rooted in their own regional contexts and could soon spearhead a new age of liberal education beyond the United States. Frequently operating under high levels of government regulation, including restrictions on foreign providers of education, these types of institutions are in the minority in countries dominated by vocational, research-oriented, and comprehensive universities with lower tuition fees. Under such circumstances, these smaller and younger players must get creative in order to thrive.

In Bangladesh, BRAC University, started in 2001, works to solve challenges arising from extreme poverty. It aims to “instill in its students a commitment to working towards national development and progress” and plays a vital part in regional socioeconomic recovery and reconstruction. In Pakistan, Habib University opened in 2014 as the first undergraduate-focused liberal arts and sciences institution in the country. As part of Habib’s Liberal Core, students take required courses in areas that include philosopny, language and expression, and social and historical thought.

With campuses in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the University of Central Asia, founded in 2000, is Central Asia’s first university to offer US accredited degrees in the liberal arts. It serves mountain community students and has two—soon to be three—separate campuses in remote areas, all on the historic Silk Road. The university’s mission is to “promote the social and economic development of Central Asia . . . by offering an internationally recognised standard of higher education and enabling the peoples of the region to preserve their rich cultural heritage as assets for the future.”

Across the globe in Chile, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, founded in 1988, offers a liberal education experience that stands out from the professionalized programs of traditional Chilean undergraduate education, working to instill in its students a sense of personal responsibility and freedom. The university has adapted Columbia University’s core curriculum, requiring students to take courses in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Ashesi University in Ghana integrates content on ethical leadership and good governance into its academic programming, with an emphasis on critical thinking and solving complex problems. Opening its doors in 2002 and now educating students from thirty-one countries, nearly all in Africa, Ashesi’s mission is to “propel an African renaissance by educating ethical, entrepreneurial leaders.” In India, where relatively few liberal arts institutions operate and most of those that do are only a little over a decade old, Ahmedabad University provides students with a liberal education within a research institution. Started in 2009, Ahmedabad describes itself as “reimagining the classroom beyond the physical walls.” In one example of the unversity’s efforts to develop independent thinkers and compassionate leaders able to grapple with complex societal challenges, engineering students develop solutions to sanitation, construction, and waste management challenges in impoverished neighborhoods.

In addition to the efforts of colleges and universities around the world to adapt the liberal education model to their specific regional realities, a focus on global awareness is key to the future success of liberal education. Global awareness efforts consider how differing types of cultural understanding and knowledge contribute to individual growth and learning and thus the ability for students, faculty, and future leaders to reach beyond borders to tackle global challenges together.

At my institution, Franklin University Switzerland, we provide students with “personalized learning through interactions both inside and outside of the classroom, true understanding of people and cultures through direct contact and guided travel, active engagement with the world as an imperative of global, liberal education.” Founded in 1969, Franklin was one of the first institutions to bring American liberal education to Europe and has both Swiss and US accreditation. Our student body represents more than forty nationalities, but welcoming a diverse international population of students is just one part of how a campus should foster global awareness. Different ethnicities, beliefs, and identities should not simply be embraced but must be integral to the curriculum and learning experience, as well as to students’ personal growth and the campus community’s common understanding.

One major way we cultivate depth of global awareness in our students is through our Academic Travel program. All students are required to take part in the travel program, which is included in the cost of tuition, at least twice a year. As part of the program, students enroll in courses that send them on extended visits—usually lasting two weeks per semester—to locations such as Madagascar, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Spain, Slovenia, and Greece, where they actively engage with different communities, cultures, and ways of learning, deepening their knowledge and developing new sensitivities and competences for approaching class material in practical contexts. Academic Travel courses are offered in disciplinces applicable to all majors and fields of knowledge, from humanities and social sciences to life sciences.

For example, in the course Ecology, Functioning, and Use of Freshwater Systems, students travel to northeast Italy and Slovenia to learn about the ecology of rivers, freshwater lakes, and groundwater aquifers and explore humans’ use of them, conservation approaches, and ways degraded systems might be restored. Students also consider the roles that lakes and rivers play in international relationships and visit freshwater systems to practice field data collection techniques.

When I meet with alumni around the world, I am struck by the sense of belonging to the Franklin community that the Academic Travel program has fostered. Franklin graduates have repeatedly told me that the program was one of their most meaningful experiences. Indeed, Franklin students and graduates are truly world citizens and travelers, and, as illustrated by our experiences at Franklin and the work of other liberal education institutions around the planet, this global perspective is key to the future of liberal education and its aim of developing individuals able to tackle and lead on solving complex societal challenges.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “One does not travel to arrive but to travel.” These words, immortalized on a plaque at the peak of Monte San Salvatore in Lugano, Ticino (Switzerland), capture the idea at the heart of Franklin University Switzerland—that traveling is about the journey, not the destination, that it is a means of broader awareness and self-exploration. Finally, our Academic Travel embraces a cosmopolitan and cross-cultural interpretation of liberal education, which equally admires and absorbs the essence of the Global North and Global South.

Photograph: At Franklin University Switzerland, all students take part in the Academic Travel program, which helps them develop a deep sense of global awareness. (Beyond Borders documentary/Fiumi Studios)


  • Samuel Martin-Barbero

    Samuel Martín-Barbero

    Samuel Martín-Barbero is the president of Franklin University Switzerland.