The Prestige Paradox

The prestige paradox works like this: An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

— Rustin Silverstein in The Harvard Crimson, 1998

There’s always more prestige to be had. When you’re on the outside of what is more prestigious, you want to be on the inside of it. When you’re on the inside, you see through it, but cannot admit it; so you strive for what is yet more prestigious, thinking this time it’ll be it. Years could pass rather quickly like that.

We learn not for school, but for life

And yet how often we forget that.

The phrase is in fact a reversal of Seneca’s original, which put the matter as it was: we do not learn for life, but for the schoolroom. And today we learn not for school, but for an exam.

How do we make learning about life? How do we make what we learn matter?

One place to start: demand it of your own education. Don’t settle when you know it’s a waste. There’s not enough time for that; there’s too much important stuff to learn.

Explaining the Value of Liberal Arts Education in New Zealand

An article in Wellington’s Dominion Post today describes how an “unpredictable labour market makes arts degree more relevant.” The gist of the article, by Richard Shaw, a professor and director of Massey University’s BA program, is that the workplace of the future will require more arts degree graduates. As the speed of technological change increases, technical jobs are becoming computerised, and entirely new jobs are being created. The workforce therefore needs graduates with “the capacities to think critically, communicate clearly, and cope with cultural diversity”, those skills that an arts degree teaches.

The argument is the one that arts and humanities programs the world over have been using over the past decade as the call for technical specialisation has seen graduation numbers decline. Arts programs have found themselves needing to justify their existence on the same terms as technical programs, which speak from ideas of productivity, employability, and ‘usefulness’. Specialised university degrees boast of higher employment rates of graduates, higher salaries, and moreover make the assertion that they are more practically useful to economies and societies. But by attempting to counter those claims, arts programs have merely subordinated the arts and humanities to the values of science and technology—values that the arts and humanities always stood as a counterbalance to.

I should say up front that I entirely agree all these arguments that defend the arts and humanities on terms of employability and usefulness. Arts degrees are the best foundation for anyone entering a world in which the meaning of work and technical skill changes annually. But while agreeing with the argument, I also think it is counterproductive; that by subordinating arts degrees to the terms of value set out by technical programs, we lose the essential values—and, yes, usefulness—of the arts and humanities. Simultaneously, we make it less likely that those students who study the arts and humanities will actually receive that kind of education; they will seek in it instead the kind of practical usefulness of technical programs, and look past what the arts and humanities truly offer.

Shaw fell into the trap when he says in his second paragraph, “Let’s put aside, for the purposes of this argument, all of those socially desirable things that a BA can impart: knowledge of self and curiosity regarding the world, the capacity to listen as well as to mount a cogent argument, and the ability to ask awkward questions of those in positions of power.” If we set those aside, we set aside the essence of an arts education. We set those aside, and then the only argument left is an attempt at saying, no, arts degrees are better for your job prospects. And if I were a prospective arts student struggling to justify that path against those who told me to be practical, to be realistic and think about a job, I’m not sure I’d listen to Shaw on blind faith that employers would leap at the chance of having me after graduation. And even if I did trust that, I would then be taking an arts degree for practical, prudential reasons—looking daily during my time at university for chances to improve a CV, taking classes and reading books for how they might put me ahead of others in the hunt for jobs. In doing that, I’d then have missed what an arts degree can offer that nothing else can—precisely those qualities that Shaw lists and then dismisses.

The real challenge for proponents of the arts and humanities—what a different tradition calls ‘liberal’ education—is to define its value on its own terms, and to resist the easy option of merely throwing statistics back at technical programs. Doing that makes for a neat op-ed, but does not help with the harder task of persuading students and society of the essential value of liberal education on its own terms.

In the United States this debate over arts degrees and technical training is much further developed, likely because the BA degree is the norm for American undergraduates. In the US, and in a range of other countries following the US system (including at my university, Yale-NUS College in Singapore), undergraduates complete a four-year BA degree, and then follow it by specialised training in postgraduate study. There, the debate is not so much on whether students should undertake BA degrees or other degrees, but rather what a BA should encompass—whether students should major in humanities subjects, or the sciences and social sciences for employability, within their BA.

As a result, most US colleges and universities take a broad approach to encourage students to study arts degrees, or the “liberal arts” as it is known. There is a focus on the intangible but very real benefits of a liberal education, captured in a slogan like “Four years to transform your life”, through to the same kinds of statistics advanced by Shaw in the New Zealand context. At the very least there is the recognition that the arts and humanities bring value of a different kind to the focus on statistics and productivity of other disciplines—and that those values are ones students should feel proud, rather than worried and concerned, to pursue.

Judging from this debate over the usefulness of liberal education in other countries, ours in New Zealand is just getting started. We should ensure that arguments made in favour of the arts and humanities demonstrate and advance the values that those disciplines bring, and not append them as garnish to the values of specialist university degrees.

More—and Better—Liberal Education

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

That seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

It Is Futile To Write About Liberal Education’s Value

How to explain the value of something whose value can only be understood by having been felt?

That is the paradox confronting anyone who has felt, and believes in, the power of a liberal education. By its very meaning (the liberal arts always stood in relation to the servile arts), a liberal education cannot be rationalised into a productive end. A practical education (vocational training, in other words) can be described in terms of its value in employment opportunities, and lifetime earnings—numerically measurable concepts that lend themselves to being understood in an instant. In explaining liberal education, by contrast, we can only fall back on vague notions of a transformative experience, life-changing and life-affirming ideas, and of learning how to live.

Those who read books about the value of liberal education are far more likely to be those who already understand its value.

The paradox cannot be resolved. And yet the knowledge that liberal education has this inexplicable value can make it far easier, in the moment when that value makes itself known, to actually grasp it, rather than pushing it away because it does not immediately serve one’s coursework or one’s career.

So, with an awareness of the futility thereof (and of the irony in this essay’s title), I’ll nonetheless keep writing and keep talking about that inexplicable power that some of us have felt in liberal education, in hope for the off-chance that others feel it too.

Introduction to Writing Fiction

They told me, when I was younger, that this is not how you write a paragraph.

A paragraph must be more than a sentence long, they said. Longer than two, too.

And when writing a paragraph, you must stick to the same idea throughout. When playing soccer you should stay in your position. And recently I learned that when working, you should keep to your assigned tasks, and that it doesn’t pay to go outside your job description.

Four sentences per paragraph might be okay. But if it’s a four-sentence paragraph, you must keep to the same idea throughout it, and you should be very careful — very very careful; extremely careful, if I was to emphasise the point — of how you link different paragraphs together, to ensure that your sentences don’t run too long, and to make sure that a single paragraph is not dominated unnecessarily by extraneous and overly verbose vocabulary. Make sure your paragraph doesn’t do that.

When your paragraph is of a suitable length, there are other things to watch out for. For instance, don’t repeat the same word like “vocabulary” over and over again, because that makes the vocabulary overly repetitive, and repetitive vocabulary makes for a repetitive story, and no one wants to read a repetitive story.

And a good paragraph will start with a thesis sentence stating what the paragraph is about. “It will then include a quotation”, my teachers told me, “to provide evidence for what you are saying, since you are not yourself an authority on the topic you are writing about.” The rest of the paragraph is where you can offer your analysis of a quotation. It is true that I am not an authority figure on structuring a good paragraph, but the question I wish to raise here is whether my teachers were, either. After all, how do they define “good” in a good paragraph?

Show, don’t tell. My thesis in this piece of fiction (make sure you don’t state your thesis either at the end of a paragraph or in the middle of your essay, they also told me; and remember that fiction needs not state a “point”) is that eminent writers have always in their prime broken the established norms of writing. If they did not break the norms of established writing, then they did nothing new, nothing worth remembering. But the paradox of eminence is that to break established rules is to immediately open yourself to criticism, to be rejected by those who are already eminent.

I want to learn to write good fiction. And what they told me was, whatever you do, make sure your story has a beginning, a middle and an end; that it has a theme and a setting, a protagonist and an antagonist, and, most importantly, a turning point. If it does not have those elements, then it is not a story. It would merely be a personal essay, and a bad one at that, with bad paragraphs, and it would be boring to read.

They told me, basically, not to write a story like this. And most importantly, don’t write a story like this that ends in a paragraph only one sentence long.

That wouldn’t make a good story, and that wouldn’t make a good paragraph.

What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “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—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.