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.

The Standard Answer

In most contexts there is an answer to every question that people take to be the standard or norm. From issues like the death penalty to democracy, or the interpretation of a painting or poem, our cultural contexts push us more readily to one perspective than another.

In most contexts there is, therefore, an answer to every question that people take to be “challenging” the standard answer. This is the answer that is quite simply less common. It is the answer that in an educational context is taken to be either a sign of dubious morals or intelligence, or a prime example of critical thinking, depending on the situation.

But what if there existed a context in which there was no standard? What if you were asked about your view on democracy or Confucian values, and felt neither pushed nor pulled toward one answer or another? What if, rather than feeling afraid of the consequences of presenting the “challenging” perspective, you saw equal consequences whichever answer you gave?

I’m talking about an environment in which cultural contexts meet, where no “standard” prevails. That’s the kind of environment that Yale-NUS College is. There is no majority. You never know where you will meet praise or resistance in views you present, but you are guaranteed that both praise and resistance exist.

And in that environment what you are left with are your own opinions, and the necessity of presenting them clearly and rigorously. You cannot hide behind the assumption that people will take you to hold the majority’s view, for there is, to repeat, no majority. The poles of opinion are spread far apart, and opinions exist at every point between; you must state where you lie, while knowing that some will agree and others will not.

Swimming Upstream at College

“It is particularly painful when those colleges at the top of the usual lists, the ones with the most resources and (as they like to claim) the most talent, fail to confront their obligations—when, as the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, puts it, they “affect horror” that “students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but… offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”

— Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

The gap between the ideal of a liberal arts education and its reality seems ever-growing. It isn’t that one cannot pursue an ideal kind of liberal education at a liberal arts college—the kind that focusses on self-examination, reading the great books to give meaning to experience. One can pursue that education. But what Delbanco so aptly puts is that when students arrive on campus, there is no mention of that larger vision of liberal education, no reminders that that is what we are here for.

And so education begins to merge with the language used daily, the subtle pressures from university offices and graduate employers. It is not overt, and it isn’t sinister. It is simply that in the busyness and pressures of everyday life at college, thought about the purpose of it all becomes a luxury one cannot afford. That is the great irony of a college education today.

To pursue liberal education as one thought about it before starting college, then, is not just to choose one path of two when they diverge… Instead, it is to swim upstream, against the current. It requires twice the strength over a sustained period of time, and it’s often all too easy to say simply, let’s go with the flow.

The Liberal Arts in Global Context

Liberal education today is in some quarters seen as being in decline; headlines almost daily question its value and predict its demise. It is increasingly passed over in favour of pre-professional or vocational degrees, and the rise of the glamorous Silicon Valley technology industry is encouraging undergraduates to specialise earlier. This, alongside the reality that the idea of the liberal arts college has hardly existed outside of the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and one could be forgiven for assuming liberal education’s days are numbered.

And yet, simultaneously, liberal education is expanding globally. Yale-NUS College is perhaps the flagship of this expansion, but across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, liberal arts programs and colleges are increasing in number. Liberal education is seen as an antidote to overly rigid career and workforce structures, and a way of claiming back personality and individual meaning in cultures that demand conformity. In these circles, liberal education is to experience not decline but a surge in both interest and enrolment.

These views cannot both be right. But how should we understand liberal education amidst the two narratives? What has liberal education been, what is it today, and what should we expect it to be in future? Can we expect it to expand globally, or will such an expansion be to lose the essence of the liberal arts? How should we think about Yale-NUS College in terms of these larger trends in liberal education, and what lessons can we draw for the further expansion of liberal education into other countries and contexts? And perhaps above all, how will these different facets of liberal education affect its original political purpose of educating informed, actively engaged and critical citizens?

I’m to attempt to answer some of these questions over the next year as part of my senior thesis project at Yale-NUS. For a while I deliberated over the topic that I should focus on for the next year; and thought there were many others, and one in particular which spoke to a question I had around how small states function in the world, these questions on the liberal arts spoke much more meaningfully to my education as a whole and an interest that I’ve never particularly done anything to cultivate.

My own experience with the liberal arts has been struggling to understand what the term even meant, coming from a country where there is no such educational tradition. But I now believe liberal education is a component of personal growth not to be passed up; I feel I understand the opportunity a liberal education offers on a deeper level, and yet do not know how to make sense of this in terms of the liberal arts tradition globally. And, especially pertinent to a New Zealander studying at a liberal arts college in Singapore, I wonder whether the liberal education I’ve received is a result of studying at an American-styled institution with predominantly American professors. Is the idea unique to America today? Can it ever truly be spread globally? Or can it only spread by maintaining the people and structures present at liberal arts colleges in the United States?

I anticipate writing with increasing frequency on the liberal arts here on this blog. My blog has always been a space to hone my own thinking on topics, and to hear from readers about what books I should be reading next or who I should be talking to. So please, if you do have thoughts, get in touch.

Between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom

“The Organization Kid” are the three words New York Times columnist David Brooks used to define a generation. Brooks travelled to Princeton and other elite institutions in the early 2000s and came away scared at how “The young men and women of America’s future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”

I don’t think we’re Organisation Kids, but I think we have parts of that kid in us. We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.

If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.

Our dilemma is whether we become the mindless and busy conformists that Brooks was so scared of, or instead move forward into a hybrid of Organisation and Hippiedom.

Knowing more and wanting more, but seeing “easy” and wanting easy. That’s us.

Wisdom and Age, Wisdom and Education

Wisdom has no necessary relationship to age or profession.

That is despite our difficult-to-escape and very banal stereotype of someone who is wise. An aging professor in an esteemed institution’s philosophy department, for instance,  may more often than not be someone whom we would go nowhere near with the word.

For wisdom is only wisdom when it links a deeper view of the world, picking up on subtleties usually missed, with outward action. The philosopher may have bountiful knowledge of wisdom, but that does not mean they are wise.

That deeper, more subtle view of the world is more likely, it is true, to come with age. But it shouldn’t be assumed, as the stereotype pushes us to.

We do not think of education as being about wisdom; but we should. Since one need not be old to be wise, and since wisdom is likely the most important trait in living one’s life (because it affects all else), there seems no larger or nobler purpose of education than gaining a more subtle view of the world and learning how to apply that to life as it is lived.

Wisdom as a single idea cannot be taught, but it seems more possible for those constituent parts to be.

There is an opportunity cost to all that is taught and studied in formal education.  So while there may be nothing wrong with what is taught, it must be weighed against what could be taught. In this light, it is the humanities that make more of a claim through that larger vision of education.

“What University Should I Choose?”

The experience you have at university is far more important than the name that goes on your resume. A truism, perhaps, but seeing a new class decide what universities to attend (and being asked the question a number of times) made it seem worth saying.

Before one is actually at university, the things that loom large in the mind’s eye are the universities’ websites, their Wikipedia pages, their brand names and whether you know anyone there. These are the things that matter little once you’re there.

The things you will think about daily are what books you’re reading, who you’re spending time with, and what professors you’re talking to. All universities have those three things. There is less difference between them than you might think.

The differences that are worth considering are where the university is and what sense of community it has. The latter especially will define your experience.

University community should be judged not just on the superficial, but on the deeper sense of how open it is and whether or not it will let you change and grow, or if it will hold you in a straitjacket of who you once were and who others think you should be. This can be hard to discern, but visit the campus if at all possible and look for the small signs. The diversity and the differences between people can be the surest sign; homogenous campuses may not let you grow.

Most importantly, ask—and ask only of yourself—what you want to get out of university and how you want to spend four important years. Answering that question will define the experience, and even define your life, far more than whether the university starts with a Y or an H, an O or a C.