“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever”

I recently found a note from 2011 in my to-do list. I was still in my second to last year of high school at the time, clearly frustrated and bored and wanting something more. The note, set with a due date of December 2011, reads:

“Write a story about how school is the biggest trick ever. Everyone is made to want good grades and the better grades you get the more brainwashed you are.”

I haven’t written the story. I don’t know if I ever will, or if I even know how to. But I rediscovered it at a good time. I’m neck-deep in my penultimate year of college and somehow seem expected to plan a life while juggling endless assignments and extracurriculars. The fog of each week’s deliverables can blind me even to the week after, and the longer-term future can seem enveloped in such a mist that thought about it is futile, at best, and likely even dangerous. With the fog of busyness comes an inevitable forgetfulness about the past. We think endlessly about the present, and at times the future—the present, because that is where those assignments loom, and the future, because that is supposedly what all this is for—but rarely about the past.

The truth is that the inevitable presentness (presentism does not quite describe it) of college and the culture of busy led me to believe that my preoccupation with education was a recent one. My friends will attest, perhaps even protest, that I spend too much time these days thinking and talking about the meaning of our education. I had come to think that college had given me a new perspective on my prior education, and that my fascination with these systems was a newfound interest. I’d been completely blinded by the present to how long-standing this interest and my frustration had been.

When we are told to find the causes we truly care about we look to how we feel at present. That’s logical, but this episode has shown me that the right place to look is probably the past. What are the things that have preoccupied you over a longer period of time, never as a blinding passion, but as a frustration and concern? I’ve now found more and more notes from over the years—even as far back as primary school—on the education system in some form or another. Who knows what I’ll do with it, but seeing how this has concerned me over a longer period comes as a sense of security and clarity that this is not an interest that will die anytime soon.

Back to the note. What to make of it?

Reading it brought back a strong sense of how I was feeling at the time I must have penned it. From years nine through eleven (roughly ages 13-16) I had felt immensely creative and productive. There was a period during which I was working for multiple news and media companies, writing articles daily, giving speeches (about education, no less), traveling to conferences. It was a ridiculous life for a high school student, but the sheer number of ideas I felt I was having meant I didn’t want to slow down or put it off. People are simply creative at different times. But as I entered my last two years of high school and the workload picked up it had eventually become a choice: do the work, get the grades, go to university, or stop and focus on all this. I wavered, even at one point chose the latter, but ultimately committed to school.

Immediately I felt as though my creativity was crushed. I no longer had a continuous stream of ideas to write into essays and articles, the number of thoughts and ideas I was recording in notebooks dropped and then ended entirely. The search for productivity made me focus on so many small things that I had nothing left with which to think about the larger. Parker Palmer describes precisely this in his commencement address on “Living from the Inside Out”: “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results.”

“Brainwashing” now seems strong and too Orwellian/Kafkaesque, but that’s how it felt at the time.

It was not a function of time. I was busy, but certainly could have found time to write and give occasional speeches. The problem was that the more I read and memorised my textbooks—the more I studied and learned to give the answers that would get me an A—the less clearly and creatively I could think. I filled my mind with little things, and forgot how to think about the larger. It became a direct relationship in my mind, an economic law: better grades leads to lower creativity & less thoughtfulness, and vice versa.

Of course, it’s not the grades themselves leading to lower creativity, but what good grades require: a relentless pursuit of productivity, consumption of facts, memorisation, in-the-box thinking. I think the hope for ambitious and creative students lies in analysing what exactly it is that good grades require, and seeing whether those can be done in ways that don’t require such a trade-off. Yet there might still come point when a decision is needed on whether one is willing to sacrifice the As for creativity and mindfulness. There isn’t a correct answer there, but rather an important personal decision.

Ultimately, it is precisely the perilous mixture of ambition and creativity that poses the problem, for one requires conformity and the other its exact opposite.

I laughed when I first read the note. “School is the biggest trick ever.” How inevitable it is that we laugh at ourselves as we grow intellectually, and the simplicity and surety of the statement certainly makes me chuckle. But the sense of it still remains in me. My education, including at college, has been a struggle to learn while maintaining a sense of creativity and self. College has been better, the most stimulating years of my life, especially since coming to understand the meaning of the liberal arts and becoming free to pursue that kind of learning. But that core concern embedded in my note—the brainwashing, the reductionism of education—still gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, even if today I laugh at my sixteen-year-old self.

The Two Yale-NUS Colleges

I’m sometimes asked what it is like to attend a university that is frequently in the headlines because of controversy. And it’s true: Yale-NUS College, where I am a member of the inaugural class, has been continually questioned and debated in public right from the start. Yale-NUS has been seen as a herald of the corruption of liberal values, where those poor students are censored and must be regretting their fated decisions to go there rather than Yale. We have been compared to blind puppies, and people have pitied our apparent lack of freedom.

But having spent this past semester at Yale in New Haven I’m struck by the fact that there are really two Yale-NUS Colleges. There’s the one that I attend, where student life is really just what I’ve had at Yale, where students have no need to take notice of the dire predictions made about our college’s fate. And there’s the other one, where Yale-NUS stands for the selling out of American liberal institutions. I read about the latter college in newspapers and online, and begin to pity those students myself. But I’ve certainly never encountered it in my three years at Yale-NUS College.

We should believe that Yale-NUS exists for an educational mission, and in that light what matters are the experiences that my classmates and I are having, over and above the abundance of interests and opinions that commentators on Yale-NUS seem to have. Each of us chose to attend Yale-NUS for very real reasons, unrelated to speculative controversy, and the College must be assessed against these reasons and hopes. For me, it was wanting a true liberal arts education in the Asia Pacific, an education that gave respect to narratives other than the American and Western European.

A recent Yale Daily News feature about Yale-NUS declared that “equally, if not more, important than how Yale-NUS’s watchers in New Haven view the partnership is what insiders — Singaporean politicians, peers at other local universities or patrons at Singapore’s signature food markets — think of the school.” Perhaps—but once again, this misses the point that Yale-NUS exists not for political and higher-ed insiders, let alone aunties and uncles at Singapore’s hawker centres. To juxtapose this with an equally crass stereotype, the equivalent would be a reporter from Singapore asking patrons of a Bojangles in Tennessee what they think of Yale. The response may not be quite what Yalies were hoping for, and ultimately those perspectives matter little to students’ lives.

The focus on the views of everyone other than students at Yale-NUS belies the false premise from which American commentators, as well as many students at Yale, approach the College. The frequent comparison between liberal Yale and authoritarian Singapore shows how Yale-NUS is often seen as a civilising mission, a grand scheme to indoctrinate Singapore from the inside, to end those restrictive chewing gum laws and ultimately allow gay marriage. These concerns demonstrate the confusion of liberal values with a liberal arts education, and I for one came to Yale-NUS for the latter.

Yale may believe it is exceptional, yet I’m inclined to read this exceptionalism as restricted to the realm of liberal arts education. As Yale’s own prospectus on Yale-NUS describes, “Creating an entirely new liberal arts college in Asia would allow Yale to extend to other parts of the world its long tradition of leadership in shaping liberal education.” One may disagree with even this goal, but it is a mistake to read it—as most critics of Yale-NUS seem to have done—as synonymous with a mission to inculcate liberal values in Singapore.

Within the realm of liberal education, however, the best people to ask about how Yale-NUS is shaping up are students themselves. The education I am receiving at Yale-NUS is practically identical in structure to that I’ve received this past semester at Yale: great professors from the world’s top universities, small seminars, a focus on debate and challenging other viewpoints. Where my education at Yale-NUS has differed is in the extent of those differences in viewpoints.

At Yale in New Haven the perspectives of other students that I’ve had to engage with have been centred around a common set of values. Differences of opinion on fundamental issues are really only minor differences around the edges of a topic, if those topics are even raised at all. At Yale-NUS, on the other hand, I have had to engage with viewpoints so different to my own that I have struggled to find language to respond. On topics from gay marriage and capital punishment to the role of the U.S. military in the world and the “Asian values” debate, I’ve been exposed to viewpoints that I always dismissed as being held by other people. To realise that these views are held by people I call friends is an education in itself, and has taught me necessary lessons about the diversity of the Asia Pacific.

When we focus on Yale-NUS’ mission to bring liberal arts education to the Asia Pacific, rather than liberal values, the irony is that I think Yale-NUS better lives up to its mission than Yale does. More often at Yale-NUS do I find myself deeply intellectually challenged, shocked at being face to face with a viewpoint so starkly different from my own, and forced to formulate a response that can be comprehended despite deep differences in fundamental perspectives.

Step back from the controversy, look at Yale-NUS for what it was intended to be and not what its critics say it should be, and then ask us about what it’s like studying the liberal arts in Asia. Yale-NUS is no longer an idea or an experiment, but is a real college with students who have very good reasons for attending. It’s time to start talking about the Yale-NUS that actually exists, not the one created from the minds of a small number of loud and eloquent commentators.

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.

Looking Back: Yale-NUS College Class of 2017

Someone reminded me recently of an article I wrote in April 2013, not long after I accepted my offer to attend Yale-NUS College. The article was published on my personal blog and on Yale-NUS’ Admissions website. It’s interesting for me to look back at the reasons I gave at the time for wanting to attend Yale-NUS—I still maintain those reasons given, and my expectations have been exceeded in almost every regard. (Also interesting to see how much my writing has changed!)

Over the past couple of years I’ve given a lot of thought to what I want out of attending university. Something I often thought about was what my perfect university would look like. I decided my perfect university would be in Asia, and would offer me a liberal arts degree that bridges Asia and the West.

Why is that my perfect university? I’ll explain each part. Quite frankly, the specialisation inherent in the UK system of tertiary education (what NZ follows) scares me. I know to a certain extent where my primary interests lie, but beyond that I want to try a huge number of different things and learn about completely different fields. In New Zealand, doing that is only partially possible if doing an Arts degree, which comes with other setbacks. Only a four-year liberal arts degree based on the US system would give me what I want.

And why Asia? Since I lived in the Philippines some years ago, nowhere has inspired me as much as Asia. The sense that things are happening excites me in a way other places simply haven’t. I also feel that Asia will play a huge role both in my life and everyone’s lives, and I think it’s important that I try to understand Asia more fundamentally than taking a class at a university outside of Asia could do.

For a long time I thought that was just wishful thinking: I didn’t know of a single liberal arts college in Asia. So my task changed to trying to determine which half of my “perfect university” equation I should compromise on. Do I go to a non-liberal arts college in Asia, or do I go to a liberal arts college elsewhere in the world?

Then in the middle of last year I received an email from Jeremiah Quinlan, the Dean of Admissions at Yale-NUS College. I’d never heard of the place before. The email started:

“In April 2011, Yale University and the National University of Singapore announced a collaborative partnership to create a new liberal arts college in Singapore, the English-speaking economic heart of Southeast Asia. Yale-NUS is not an overseas campus for Yale students; in August of next year, Yale-NUS will enroll its pioneer class of 150 four-year students to study with dedicated Yale-NUS professors on its own brand-new campus nestled within one of Asia’s strongest universities. As American universities internationalize, and as Asia continues to develop its global political and economic presence, Yale is proud to be the first Ivy League school to establish a new college bearing its name outside of the US.”

(If you want some more detailed information about Yale-NUS, check out this blog post by one of my classmates-to-be and fellow Kiwi, Andy).

I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I read that email, because it came as such a shock. It felt as though someone had read my thoughts and started a university just for me. Out of all the places I thought a university in Asia would be best, Singapore would’ve been my top pick.

But it amazed me in more ways. Something that I’d always been wary of in terms of studying at university was simply slotting into a hundred-year-old system where everything was stuck in its ways. Most existing institutions are too large and “heavy” to innovate successfully or to build a curriculum that links between departments. In addition, I’ve always considered myself an “early adopter”, as I love finding the “new” and then sharing it with everybody. The fact that this is a new university, giving its first students the opportunities to set the tone of the institution for decades to come, to me is a huge opportunity.

The university is built on connecting Asia and “the West”. If you take a literature course in the US, or NZ, it will be Western literature. If you want to learn about Asian literature, you have to take a separate, specific “Asian literature” course. That is so backward. It misses how important Asia is to the world. Yale-NUS, in every course it offers, bridges Asia and the West.

Clearly I applied. It was the place I most wanted to be accepted to, but it was also the most competitive from estimates. Sure enough, Yale-NUS has already had over 12,000 applicants for 150 spots, and its admit rate seems to be about 3%.

I was lucky enough to be admitted with a merit scholarship.

I’m writing this blog post from the Auckland Koru Lounge on my way back to Wellington after a weekend in Singapore for the “Experience Yale-NUS Weekend”, where 120 admitted students were invited to spend time in Singapore together. The weekend confirmed everything I thought about Yale-NUS: that it is the right place for me.

For example, we had some sample classes during the weekend, and one was a history course comparing the historians Herodotus and Sima Qian. I’ve learned about each of them individually in a Roman history course and a Chinese civilisation course, respectively – but never have I been able to draw comparisons between them. Yale-NUS, because it’s an agile education startup with a very tight-knit faculty, is able to bridge these things in every discipline.

I have accepted my offer of admission at Yale-NUS and will be joining the inaugural class from July this year.

Surprisingly, Yale-NUS wasn’t the only place I was considering. Another liberal arts college started up in Asia this year, and I was admitted there too: New York University Shanghai. Why am I not going there? I just don’t have as large a connection to it – it’s not as “me”, even though it will be a fantastic institution. I was lucky enough to be flown to different colleges to visit in order to determine what is “me” and what isn’t. For example, I visited NYU Abu Dhabi. While it’s a great college, I didn’t have anywhere near as large a connection to it as I did to Yale-NUS.

I was admitted to a number of other colleges around the world, and in turning them down to accept at Yale-NUS I have no worries or concerns. In decisions as big as this it would be normal to have some concerns or reservations, but I have none. I’m thrilled and excited and am so looking forward to the next four years.

After the past few years working towards gaining admission to the right university for me, it’s great to finally be able to say with certainty where I’ll be going.

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.