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.

Reflection on a Grain of Sand

This was originally a reflection I wrote for a class called “The Search for a Habitable Planet” with Professor Bryan Penprase at Yale-NUS College.

From ages three until six I lived in Rarotonga, the largest island of a disparate group in the middle of the Pacific that make up the Cook Islands. This meant that I grew up during those three formative years with the night sky more clear and visible than I’ve ever seen since. Asking questions about space, and the earth’s place in it, probably came naturally with all those stars and satellites spread above me every single night.

Around age 4 my parents bought me a videotape of Sam Neill’s TV program Space. In my favourite episode Sam Neill stands on a beach and picks up a hand-full of sand. Letting the grains run slowly through his fingertips, he explains the vastness of space by saying that for every grain of sand on every beach in the world there are more than a billion stars, each with their own planets and moons. And so on that small Pacific island surrounded by one endless beach I let the grains of fine white sand run through my own fingertips and thought about the enormity of space. Though it may sound strange or ridiculous, I could comprehend it: that grain-of-sand analogy was the perfect way for my young and malleable brain to understand that this tiny island I lived on, surrounded by vast ocean, was itself the same as the tiny world we live on surrounded by vast space. And with that understanding came the sense that there was no doubt that there were other habitable planets out there: with so much sand on earth pure chance means we will eventually discover another planet like ours (said my young brain).

Space was my childhood fascination, and from ages five until ten I was determined that I would be an astronomer. But somewhere along the way I simply stopped thinking about space and the earth. Perhaps it was when I moved to Manila, a light-filled metropolis, and for a year didn’t see the night sky. Space practically exited my mind, and what filled it was concerns with how islands and continents within this earth can best organise themselves. Global affairs became my fascination: empires and wars, ideologies and negotiations. International Relations takes as its premise that the earth and the resources on it are finite, and therefore conflict is to a degree inevitable. Statesmen concern themselves with working within the confines of this earth to secure the interests of a subset of its people. Planets for me during this decade were the different continents that different ideologies occupied.

And now, reflecting on earth and space in the first year of my third decade on earth, I have a sense of incredulity: did man really go to the moon? Is a man-made object truly in interstellar space and still transmitting to earth? Everything that I have consumed my mind with for a decade has been confined to continents and islands and managing the conflicts that flare up in the world. How could humans have possibly exited this atmosphere and looked at the whole of earth at once? With so much still to do and organise on this earth, how is it possible that humans have left its atmosphere to search for other worlds? In this decade, planets seem almost to be fiction.

But when I think back to those grains of sand on all the beaches on earth I’m left with a sense of ridiculousness. How can people consume themselves with something so small? “Every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant”; “every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species”… has been absorbed in one infinitesimally small grain of sand no different to all the trillions of others. Even the Voyager 2 image of our “pale blue dot” privileges our position in the universe, because we can make it out amidst the darkness. I prefer to conceptualise Earth as a planet as just one of those grands of sand on one of the beaches on earth, indistinguishable from the rest.

The great irony is that humans only started leaving Earth’s atmosphere during a period of intense human competition and rivalry: it was preoccupation with portions of this Earth that led humans closer to discovering other worlds. Are other planets therefore only discoverable and reachable through human rivalry? In these moments of reflection, Earth becomes a symbol of the confines and preoccupations of the human mind.

What the Permanent 5 Can Learn From the Painting That Hangs Above Them

Copyright United Nations.
Copyright United Nations.

Note: I conducted research for this article in 2015 for an art history class at Yale-NUS College, and originally published this article version of my research on Fox & Hedgehog.

On the east wall of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) chamber hangs an enormous painting that all will recognise and yet be able to say almost nothing about. It is a grand backdrop, but little more, to the grander discussions occurring at the table before it.

The story behind this painting, its artist, and its present context is a complex one that highlights the tensions between the Security Council’s aspirations and its conflicted past; it is an important reminder to the Council that radical changes are sometimes needed, not just superficial adjustments. As I’ll explain, Per Krohg, the artist, made precisely this mistake when he reused work he had completed during the Nazi occupation of Norway as the centrepiece of his UNSC work, completed in 1950. Both Krohg’s painting and the P5 are remnants of the war, and risk failing precisely because, out of fear or misunderstanding, they refuse to reinvent themselves for the times we now live in.

Per Krohg’s painting is some five by nine metres, and is divided horizontally; the lower-third is executed in dark colours, the upper two-thirds much lighter with UN-white and blue motifs. Colour alone gives much of the work’s message: the lighter colours suggest peace, progress and truth, while the darker colours depict a hellish landscape. “Symbolising”, the UNSC tells us, “the promise of future peace and individual freedom”, the work shows a phoenix rising from a dark landscape into a light-filled world of progress. Though complex, with many panels depicting separate scenes, the painting’s overall message is simple: technology, justice and truth, united by the nuclear family and the UN-led world order, are forces that progress humanity.

Despite its initial simplicity and message, the iconography of this painting becomes deeply troubling the more it is observed. It is clearly a propagandistic image in favour of the UN-led order, but only a thin film separates it from being a troubling and conflicted remnant of war, and a symbol of what the UN has or could become. Created to represent the lofty goals of the world’s most inclusive and progressive organisation, the painting in fact depicts the opposite. It is so deeply rooted in the Second World War, with all of that period’s problems, that Gregory Maertz, an art historian specialising in the Third Reich at St. John’s University, even told me that Krohg’s painting “could easily function as nazi propaganda on behalf of national socialist eugenic (later eliminatory) ideology”. For instance, it is caucasian men and women who pull chained, black figures out of the hellish lower-third of the painting; it is caucasian figures who look through telescopes and microscopes in the upper-right of the image, and the same figures who weigh gold in the upper-left. And, of course, the centrepiece of the image is a caucasian nuclear family surrounded by Biblical iconography. These were the figures and motifs ever-present at Nazi art exhibitions throughout the Third Reich, in Munich, Oslo and Vienna, for instance.

It is the centrepiece of this painting that says the most about the painting as a whole, and, perhaps, the state of the Security Council today. What seems to be unrecognised or even unknown in the scholarship about Krohg’s painting is that the centre panel, depicting the nuclear family, is not original. In fact, the panel is almost identical to a painting that Krohg completed in 1940, at the start of the Nazi occupation of Norway. This other work, titled Peace, the Artist and His Family, is a forlorn painting, the man and woman at the centre of it both with downcast gazes, and even the children surrounding them looking melancholy. It can be read as Krohg’s reaction to the occupation, and the knowledge that he might be separated from his family. In the version Krohg produced for the centrepiece of the UNSC painting, the only changes made are that the figures have much lighter skin and hair, have subtle smiles, and the man and woman now have linked arms.

Per Krohg was an artist who was invited to paint a monumental work for the world’s most important room; he was tasked with encapsulating the notion of peace in a single image. But for Krohg, who had lived through the Nazi occupation, and even been imprisoned for a year by the Nazis, peace seemed only to function in relation to war. The same can be said of the Security Council today, a body whose permanent members remain because of the role they played in the Second World War; the P5 reflects global power in 1945, not global power today.

For Krohg, the United Nations was a promise of avoiding the preceding decade that he had lived through. The problem with reusing his own work from 1940 is not so much self-plagiarism as forever tying the Security Council chamber to a very specific war, and its very specific problems. The Security Council itself functions in the same way. By mooring itself, through permanent membership and the veto power, to a specific war and very distinct problems, the Security Council risks becoming a body that no longer has the power to inspire peace, just as Krohg’s mural today is more problematic than it is inspiring. Reforming the Security Council by expanding permanent membership to reflect present global power would be an immediate way for the Council to un-stick itself from the remnants of war.

———

In 2013 the United Nations completed extensive restoration of the Security Council chamber which had been ongoing for seven years at a cost of USD$1billion. If there was ever a time to update the physical Council chamber—or even Council permanent membership—to reflect the times in which it now operates, that would seem to have been it. When asked by a magazine about the changes made to the Security Council chamber, Michael Adlerstein, the assistant secretary-general in charge of the project, responded: “We didn’t change very much. The Americans and the Russians and the Chinese are all extremely nervous about Security Council reform and the slippery slope—‘If you change this, where is that going to lead us?’” He went on: “Whether it works for the world is a matter of opinion, but it works for the five permanent members, so there’s a great deal of reluctance to change anything.”

The image of the family, and the other tropes so prevalent in his painting, clearly worked for Per Lasson Krohg. Whether they work for the world is a matter of opinion. But the irony is that the permanent members of the Security Council are watched over by a painting that is meant to remind them of their role in maintaining and advancing peace in the post-war world, and instead should remind them of the dangers of being stuck in the past. The latter is the immediate lesson they should pay attention to, or else the former may become impossible.


If a Goldfish Could Remember

During my final teenage years I held and could not shake the idea that goldfish were a supremely lucky species. Goldfish lived, forgot, kept on living and forgot again, their memories famously said to last just three seconds. We humans are destined to remember forever: an indiscretion lasts a lifetime. We are, in other words, goldfish that can remember.

Not that my indiscretions were great, or that I really have any to recall at all. But it was nonetheless precisely this fear of mistakes, of regrets, that defined my decisions from ages eighteen to twenty. I think it was literature that did it to me. Literature and, perhaps, my knowledge that the lessons from literature were likely to be compounded in a world where collective memories are stored online.

Milan Kundera wrote, of a subtly different but somehow similar idea, that “Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third or fourth life in which to compare various decisions”.

For Kundera, humans should feel lightness in making decisions because there is no way we can determine good or bad decisions. Yet we must decide, and should therefore feel lightness about any ramifications of a decision we could not avoid. For those he disagrees with, we would feel unbearable weight because in every moment we make decisions that we must suffer the consequences of. I’ve always thought that Kundera sees humans as helpless in the face of grand decisions, and therefore paradoxically able to throw off any chains and burdens; most of us, however, see humans as culpable for decisions, and therefore prone to the feeling of weight.

But it seems to me that Kundera more closely describes goldfish than humans. Goldfish live one life, but are unable to learn within it; each three-second block is lived in a form of the dictum that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With no memory there is indeed the impossibility of culpability for actions; mistakes and bad decisions will be repeated endlessly, and one can hardly assign any blame or fault to the goldfish. It is true that humans live but one life; but unlike the goldfishes’ life, a human’s can be improved based on past experiences.

A goldfish that can remember is a goldfish that makes a mistake and can resolve not to repeat it. A goldfish that can remember is one that is culpable for its actions. It still lives just one life, yet that life can be changed, improved, bettered through its course.

A goldfish that can remember can legitimately make a mistake once and claim innocence. But beyond that, a feeling of weight is appropriate: the feeling that weighs on our throats, just below our adams-apple, when we must make a decision the consequences of which we have previously seen. It is this weight that encourages learning, changing course, improving.

A goldfish that can remember is one that disavows previously held views when new facts or ideas come to light. Consistency is a virtue only for the goldfish with a three-second memory—consistency in what is practically insanity. Flexibility in light of new learning is the virtue of the goldfish that can remember.

I begin my third decade somewhat sorry for the simple goldfish, and thankful for being a goldfish that can remember. I am less afraid of saying and doing what I think and believe, where previously I lived in fear of saying or doing something I might later disagree with. I feel lightness because I can learn from mistakes; I can act and learn, then decide whether to repeat the action or not. The weight of consequence allows the lightness that comes from an ability to learn and to change course. The goldfish whom I so fervently admired now seems a poor fellow; the lightness of innocence is, in the end, the greatest of burdens.