The concept of receiving a well-rounded, liberal arts education is steeped in history in the U.S. — a reality that is evident locally with such venerable institutions as Carthage College.

But in other parts of the globe, this cornerstone within the American higher education system is just starting to bear fruit — particularly in such nations as Vietnam, where conditions have improved in recent years.

Dam Bich Thuy, founding president of Fulbright University Vietnam, sat down with Carthage President John Swallow on Saturday for a one-on-one conversation about the state of higher education in the Asian nation. Thuy was selected as this year’s commencement speaker at Carthage.

While the concept of liberal arts has long been woven into the fabric of American higher education, Swallow said it can be caught up in confusion.

“One thing we are challenged with as Americans is, ‘What is the liberal arts?’” Swallow said as he asked Thuy for her take on the concept.

At Fulbright University Vietnam, Thuy said students are intermingling skills-based learning with the coursework that also dips into liberal arts.

The goal, Thuy said, is to give the students an understanding and ability to engage in critical thinking by debating, articulating their thoughts and asking questions.

“Courses are designed to be truly interdisciplinary,” Thuy said, pointing to one example: Vietnamese students enrolled in Engineering 101, for example, would be required to also take such humanities courses as psychology and sociology with an emphasis on how the concepts can be applied directly into the profession.

As part of the exercise, Thuy said students meet with elder citizens and develop products that could benefit that subset of the Vietnamese population.

“It is not pushing a product,” Thuy said of the philosophy behind the exercise. “It has to be something more than just a product. It has to be something a user needs.”

A history lesson

While relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have improved in more recent times, the portrait was starkly different a half-century ago.

Thuy said Fulbright University Vietnam has used history instruction as a prism for students to peer more deeply into conflicts between nations.

Case in point: Thuy’s students watched an episode of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War. At the end of the episode, Thuy said many were sobbing and physically moved by the narrative they watched.

Recounting the conversation, Thuy said the students relayed to her, “We never knew the Americans suffered so much. We only thought the Vietnamese suffered.”

Speaking to the importance of critical thinking, Thuy said, “You need to see things from a different lens — especially for history. There are so many interpretations of history.”

In many respects, Thuy said Fulbright University Vietnam is akin to a start-up and is making refinements as needed to continue its evolution.

Regardless of where higher education is headed in Vietnam, Thuy recited a quote about its transformative powers: “Education is the best way to heal the past,” she said.