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[Liberal education] Zhu Qingsheng: the idea of education

NOV . 23 2015

Peking University, Nov 19, 2015: Art History, taught by Professor Zhu Qingsheng, dean of Research Center for Art in Department of History at Peking University, has been a hot course since it was first started. From the fall semester of 2015, Prof. Zhu would discuss ten subjects, including eros, life and death, distinction and order, to give an overall presentation of art and art historyin different timesand culture. 
Humanity as the focus of art history
In Zhu’s view, art, the object of art history study, generates from the activity of human mind. The process of its production is full of creativity, self-negativity and uncertainty. Accordingly, art history is a subject to record the interaction between art and human activities. In different culture and times, the relationship appears in different forms. Thus there is more than one art history.
Zhu Qingsheng has his own way of teaching art history. “I lead my students to comprehend art and let them get better understanding by questioning, criticizing and finally breaking through the way I teach them.” Art history aims not at instructing, but at setting up students’ own ideas.
To Prof. Zhu, art history is an approach to a broader world, rather than the restatement of historical facts of art. Art history leads to more abstract matters and profound questions, such as those related to humanity and the essence of the world. These matters can never be fully recognized, butthey manifest themselvesin various things, especially in the way of art. Zhu Qingsheng says that humanity should be taken as the fundamentalsubject in art history courses, and only in this way  could questions be explained in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, there would be a great loss of significance.
The course as a work of art
Prof. Zhu is one of the earliest designers and practitioners of liberal education in Peking University. In 1986, PKU was planning to put liberal education into practice, firstly starting with the field of art. In the following year, Prof. Zhu came to Peking University from Central Academy of Fine Art.
As one of the forerunners in charge of Yuanpei College, Zhu thought the original purpose of “Yuanpei Program” was about liberal education instead of professional education. Liberal courses embody a concept that “a man should first have independent thoughts and free spirit, then could he enter a career.”
Zhu has already discussed more than 700 topics in his art history course. “The best course in liberal education should be an art exhibition, a process of enlightenment and spiritual enjoyment for the audience.”
Zhu said his course attached great importance to the value of enjoyment. “Once when I was talking about a shrine with special marbles in Versatile, all the students thought it was an intended design. But researchers found that it was because of the fiscal problem of French government and people could not afford the marble of same quality that made this shrine a unique one. Without a probing like this, one cannot discover the story behind or get a better understanding of that times.”
From Zhu’s perspective, the challenge in carrying out liberal education still exists in certain subjects, such as in mathematics. “Students can understand me even if I talk about something very difficult about art history, while in mathematics it is hard to achieve the same effect. Then courses of mathematics are usually reduced to the learning of basic facts, instead of the cutting-edge knowledge of certain subjects.” Zhu doesn’t deny the importance of basic science courses in liberal education, but he said the current way of teaching is far from his ideal.
What is the best way of teaching in liberal education? Zhu said, apart from the common knowledge, professors should impart basic skills in certain field as well, which would enable students to apply them into their own studies. But still, liberal education is in the process of practice and experiment, which requires exploration and further improvement.
Written by: Fu Guirong, Wang Zehua
Edited by: Wu Zhangxinan
Source: Office of Educational Administration