A Global Perspective on the Humanities Debate

Though the decline of the humanities in universities has been much discussed, these reports seem to reflect more the Euro-centric perspective on higher education than the global reality. Nicholas Kristof felt compelled to defend the humanities from such talk in the Times (Don’t Dismiss the Humanities, August 13, 2014), and in doing so framed the debate along strictly U.S.-European lines. This is no surprise, given that those are by and large the normal boundaries of the debate. But it is necessary to reconsider what we subconsciously define as these boundaries in order to understand current global trends in education.

In Singapore, the founding of Yale-NUS College (of which I am a member of the inaugural class) signals a belief that not only is there a role for the humanities in a digital world, but there is a growing and decisive place for it. Yale-NUS is one of an increasing number of tertiary institutes in Asia focussing on providing an education encompassing the humanities. For instance, in Hong Kong, a recent focus amongst public universities has been on shifting from a British-styled three-year specialised degree to a four-year American bachelor’s program after a government directive in 2012. In South Korea, a number of colleges offering specific liberal programs have started within larger universities, operating as semi-autonomous colleges. New York University has opened campuses in both Abu Dhabi and in Shanghai.

It is interesting to note the substantial government backing that many of these new programs receive. Yale-NUS College, for its part, is funded in majority by the Singaporean government. Though debate erupted amongst certain groups at Yale about what role such a liberal institution has in a more authoritarian place, the high-level government support for Yale-NUS signals a desire for this city state to be more accommodating of a variety of viewpoints.

Granted, students at liberal institutions like Yale-NUS College do not all study the humanities. But as a fundamental building block of a liberal education, a move to cement the liberal arts in Asia does signal a desire on the part of the government to improve access to high-quality humanities education. This approach marks a stark shift from the traditionally highly-specialised, British-style programs offered throughout Asia where the most attention and respect is placed on the disciplines promising highest post-graduation earnings.

At Yale-NUS, a common curriculum that all students must participate in spans much of students’ first two years at the College. A one-year course in both Literature & Humanities and Philosophy and Political Thought is mandatory, and a focus is on providing a grounding in the literary and philosophical traditions of different regions within the same course. Students begin by reading the Indian epic The Ramayana before moving to The Odyssey, and later the Persian love story Yusuf and Zulaikha by the poet Jami, to name a few. Likewise in Philosophy, classes start with Chinese philosophical traditions, and then moved through both the traditional Western canon and what Yale-NUS has called some of the basics of an Eastern philosophical canon. Other courses called Comparative Social Institutions and Modern Social Thought are designed to specifically challenge some of the cultural beliefs that underpin students’ mindsets when coming from different cultural backgrounds.

With this more accommodating, global focus Yale-NUS, and many other liberal arts institutions in Asia, are not just transplanting a humanities education but are improving on the one traditionally offered in the United States. This is a significant attraction not just for students within Asia, but for other students from around the world who lament the fact that at the Ivies one must take a separate, specific Asian literature course to gain an understanding of these equally important and impressive traditions. Students here turned down other offers from all Ivies, including Yale itself, to become a member of the inaugural class of Yale-NUS. This represents the recognition that this university offers something unique and improved in the liberal arts over the traditional bastions of liberal education.

Ultimately the humanities and the liberal arts can be expected to play a larger role in Asia and elsewhere in the years to come, precisely because they allow an understanding of what many, like Nicholas Kristof, fail to see: that just because there is a trend in the United States, this can no longer be used to speak for the world as a whole. When one looks globally, without the confines of a U.S.-centric viewpoint, it is much more clear that even in a digital age the humanities will be playing a vital and growing role. This global perspective on the humanities debate must be taken as the starting point if any global conclusions are to be reached.

Author: mmoorejones

New Zealander and Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Yale-NUS College.

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