What Is Our Time Here For?: The Meaning of Yale-NUS College and the Liberal Arts


Note: This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Octant, Yale-NUS College’s student newspaper. 

This semester at Yale University I’m taking a class called Successful Global Leadership with New York Times columnist and author David Brooks. In class David frequently refers to what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. As he described them in his most recent book, “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed”.

It struck me that how we think about these two virtues will to a large extent determine the way we approach our time at college—the major and classes we choose, how we think about grades, and which student organisations we choose to commit to. Not only that: the way that Yale-NUS College, or any institution for that matter, thinks about these two virtues will determine how it views its mission, and how it educates generations of students after us. Daily life, with its classes, meeting and events, loomed over by exams and papers, can make it all too easy to forget why we are here in the first place. I think that is true not only for us students, but also for faculty and college leadership.

The resume virtues are ever-present in discourse, to the extent that it can be hard to realise there is anything else. As David describes, “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” Juniors are in the midst of applying for penultimate year internships: the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) and our advisers are stressing the things we need to do to land our desired internship, to in turn get the job we want after graduation. The major and classes we choose, the student organizations we join, and the amount of effort we decide to put into different aspects of student life—I would be disingenuous not to admit that my decisions are at least in part determined by how these things may appear on my resume. And the resume virtues are inculcated in us from the top, by our CIPE and major advisers, some of our professors, and even by the thought that Yale-NUS’ long-term impact depends on our own post-graduation professional success.

I think that if we fall into the trap of viewing this institution as a unique fast-track to impressive resume virtues then we will have missed an incredible opportunity to shape our own lives, and to “redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world.” The question asked by Yale-NUS’ inaugural curriculum committee was “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” It was not, let’s be clear, “What must a young person learn in order to get their desired job?”

The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom, in our case—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations, with “inner character”. I’ve come to think that college is, at its core, about beginning to build a wide and sturdy foundation of eulogy virtues, upon which we can build our external and professional lives. I learned this the risky way. With just over a year left before graduating from high school, I left to work at a technology company. I returned not long after, once I’d learned what education seemed to really be about. It took leaving school to show me that there was a difference between “an education” and “becoming educated”, to highlight the parts of school that seemed fundamentally meaningful, and to show me why it was worth devoting four years to college. To put it another way, in the words of Bill Deresiewicz, who visited Yale-NUS earlier this semester: “College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake that work of self-discovery… There’s nothing “academic” about it.”

I am not saying that resume virtues are unimportant; they are. But I believe we are here for something more than that, and that the decisions we make during college should be about those larger ideals first, resumes second. Resumes can be built upon a sturdy understanding of yourself, but I don’t think the reverse is true.

I’m fearful that in the relentless focus on how our time at college will serve our resumes and our careers we will end up wasting the chance to expand our opportunities, and to create the foundations for meaningful lives. Not only that, but I’m fearful that Yale-NUS will forget its mission, falling back on the easy and externally satisfying pursuit of resume virtues for itself as an institution, and for its students. We all play a role in Yale-NUS’ mission, and in setting its tone for decades to come. So, at the very least, let us think about the tone that we want, and whether the decisions we make today are ones we would be proud of when we gather at Yale-NUS in three decades’ time.

What’s in a Flag?

If I had been looking for an example to describe a lilliputian dilemma, the phrase I decided to have title this blog, I would’ve done well to have chosen the “great debates” nations go through to change their ultimate symbols, their flags. It’s the sort of example where there isn’t truly a bad outcome, yet one where passions run high, and debate occasionally runs through to apocalyptic scenarios if change happens this way or that. I’m guilty of these passions myself, and am guilty of raising the topic far too many times with my friends in Singapore, for whom changing the New Zealand flag was not exactly vital world news.

What’s in a flag? Why the radically opposing views, to the extent that votes were sharply split between non-voters, pro-change and protest votes? And how does a nation decide on a flag when everyone seems to conceptualise of a flag in a different way?

For a flag is not viewed uniformly. I think first of our flag at the United Nations. I think of it flying outside our embassies and on our ambassadors’ cars in fifty capitals, and I think of it flying on the Beehive and sewn onto our soldier’s sleeves. Our Prime Minister first thinks of the flag being waved by thousands as the All Blacks play the Wallabies, and my friends think of it in their bedrooms at universities around the world. Others think of it as a sticker on their laptop, a patch on their backpack, or a profile photo on Facebook.

I do think of our flag in these other contexts, but after thinking of it in the international context, as a symbol of our country to the world. My international upbringing, and the fact that I currently live overseas, leads the international portrayal to be the one to come first to my mind. This situation will likely be reversed for other New Zealanders; indeed, many may find it incomprehensible that I first view what is fundamentally a domestic symbol in an international context.

Effective symbols must unite the different backgrounds that everyone, even those under one banner, inevitably have; they must take the variety of contexts that individuals’ backgrounds lead them to conceptualise of the symbol in, and look good in all situations. This is not an easy task. And I think it’s also the reason why so many of us in this country, amongst our friends and in our own families, have struggled over the past months to understand others’ points of view. For my part, I will admit that I cannot understand the perspective of wanting to keep our current flag with the Union Jack on it. I can conceive that others’ life experiences, and others’ mental visualisations of the flag, may lead to that conclusion; but because I don’t have those experiences or visualisation, I cannot actually understand that perspective. Some people very close to me cannot understand my support for the so-called Red Peak, and likewise I cannot understand why a logo-like flag could be preferred over it.

These debates and misunderstandings—in fact, not misunderstandings, but inabilities to understand—happening across New Zealand aren’t a result of the way that this flag referendum has been run. The process has been fine, in my opinion. No, these inabilities to understand are simply the result of the difficulties in choosing a single symbol that must conform best, on average, to the multitude of mental conceptualisations of the flag that four million New Zealanders have. Should we be surprised that many weren’t happy with the four shortlisted designs? I suggest not. Should we be surprised that the vote was split many different ways, including indifference and protest? Again, probably not. And should we be surprised if, at our first attempt, we don’t change our flag? No. Symbols are complex, they function through one’s own lived and thought experiences, and to find one that a majority of us prefer over the status quo is a task that should be expected to take time.

We will have referenda on the flag in future, and it might not be surprising if it does not succeed even at the second try. But merely having the debate, having the issue in the public mind for stretches of time, increases the likelihood of convergence in those conceptualisations of symbols. The longer people discuss, debate, and think about the issues, the more—gradually, yes—there will be subtle changes in opinion, just as polls have shown change in flag preferences since the debate started earlier this year. Over years, perhaps I will come to conceive of the flag more at sporting events than the United Nations, and perhaps others will come to see the vitality I see in the Red Peak. Gradually there will become more overlap in thinking and conceiving of a flag to represent this country, and as time goes on so therefore will the likelihood that we will get both a new flag and a flag that will best serve us.

“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object”—this describes my idea of the point at which people must be when there is convergence on a single symbol. Only when those metaphorical hearts speak in a similar way, and in ways that people cannot fully find words to describe, will there have been enough convergence in views of the symbol that there will be sufficient support to change the flag. I fully agree with Rowan Simpson on his reasons for supporting the Red Peak, for instance; but I feel that by having to explain in detail all the aspects of the flag that make it desirable, the inexplicable strong feelings that some have towards it are somehow lost. Only when we cannot explain the strength of identity we feel towards one of the symbols is it likely enough to get the groundswell needed for change.

For the record, I will be spoiling my vote in the second round of this referendum. I desperately want a new flag for this country. But the blue and black Silver Fern with Southern Cross is not, for me, the one, precisely because it is so easily rationalised, and because it gives me no feeling of pride and excitement that I cannot explain. Nor could I bring myself to vote against the blue and black for our current flag, which I truly feel does not represent this country I know. Change takes time, especially when it comes to finding a single symbol to represent millions. If what’s in a flag are the experiences and aspirations of millions, we shouldn’t be surprised that the first four designs we are presented with don’t quite cut it. As much as I want a new flag, I’d rather wait for the right one.

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