My Capstone Thesis: Liberal Education Between Self-Cultivation and Citizenship

Today I completed my senior ‘capstone’ thesis at Yale-NUS College. My topic was liberal education—a rather broad and ill-defined topic, but then again part of my project was to uncover what exactly is meant by the term, and what exactly constitutes the education I have supposedly received over the past four years. Supervised by Professor Pericles Lewis, the inaugural president of Yale-NUS, my essay attempted to shed light on the implicit means and ends of a liberal education, all the while moving beyond the kinds of platitudes one might find on a college website.

Two starting points of liberal education, and education in general, as I see them:

  1. A liberal education is a self-reflexive education, defined by how one can question and critique one’s education from within (as I was doing with my thesis, for instance). Other forms of education do not feature this self-reflexivity, but are primarily a unidirectional transfer of knowledge.
  2. The education that students ultimately receive and which faculty aim to impart is determined first and foremost by the way that liberal education is described, explained and discussed. This is because, stuck inside our education, we view as its end whatever ends are most visible to us.

These are ideas which have defined my approach to my own education. Perhaps they come as a result of having attended so many educational institutions, where one by necessity begins to see education from a broad perspective. And they are ideas that I tried to demonstrate and shed light on through the capstone, albeit indirectly: by focussing on assessing key rhetorics of liberal education in history, I hoped that both the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ultimate ends would be reflected out of the project. The metaphor for it is best demonstrated by Velásquez’ Las Meninas, where the painter stands before the canvas he paints, and yet sees there himself, and his own reflection: the work is the beginning of a continual questioning and critiquing. My project was both a reflection on liberal education, and a reflection of one.

I end the paper with a call for a modern notion of Bildung, or self-cultivation, as Wilhelm von Humboldt and many of the German Romantics used the term. One of the key dichotomies in education today is how it must be both a private, selfish, individual education, undertaken for no other reason than one’s own personal development; but that at the same time we must educate ourselves to be societally useful, that is, to be useful as citizens. The tension is a defining one for the rhetoric of many educational institutions, and in the daily lives of many students: we want our education to be inwardly-focussed, but know we must contribute through our later work.

The genius of the notion of Bildung is that it links the one notion to the other: that by educating ourselves as individuals, we enable ourselves as citizens. It is therefore no longer either/or—either self-cultivation or citizenship—but one before the other (I have argued this in slightly different terms before). Bildung must be drawn out and untethered from its nineteenth century Romantic roots, but from it, I argue in my capstone, we can develop an institutional rhetoric that escapes the dichotomy. And of course, here we return to the two notions I started with—the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ends achieved through discourse—for institutional rhetoric has the power to shape the education that we as students seek, and which faculty aim to impart to us.

Perhaps I will publish the thesis here at some point. At the very least, it has been interesting to build upon, in an academic way, many of the ideas that seem to have been floating around this blog since my high school years.

 

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.

The Man Who Made Yale-NUS Yale-NUS

 

It’s coming up on four years since I sat nervously at my family’s home in Wellington and waited to receive a Skype call that would determine the next four years of my life. I ran through the possible questions I might be asked by the Yale-NUS admissions officer, practising possible formulations of answers, reminding myself to remain calm yet formal.

My computer rang, I took a deep breath, then answered. In a rapid-fire voice at times very deep and, when excited, melodious, the admissions officer told me his name was Austin Shiner, he’d been with Yale-NUS for a year or so since himself graduating from Yale, and that he was excited beyond belief about what Yale-NUS might become. His smile was infectious and I was smiling too within a minute of talking, and his facial expressions seemed to mimic perfectly what he was saying: something serious was said with head tilted slightly downwards and a furrowed brow to give no doubt this was serious; something frivolous, with head tilted backwards and eyes smiling. His cheeks were red, as if to emphasise the extent to which he couldn’t contain his excitement when speaking of Yale-NUS.

“What books do you like to read?”, Austin asked me. I could talk about that no problem, even though it wasn’t a question I’d thought of beforehand. I talked for a bit about books, and then trailed off, expecting the next question. Austin instead started talking about his own favourite books, and offered me some recommendations. King Rat by James Clavell, he told me to read: historical fiction telling the story of prisoners of war (including some Americans and some New Zealanders) during World War 2, set at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. I ordered the book right after the call. A recommendation from Austin, especially when it comes to food or books, we’ve all come to realise, is not something to be ignored. (His YouTube channel sums up the man: “These videos deal with food. Hence, they deal with life.” Austin last night became the first person to eat at all 108 of Singapore’s hawker centres).

It is hard to think of that Skype call as an interview. It was merely a conversation between two people both excited about this thing called Yale-NUS, one of whom had just moved half way across the world to a new country called Singapore to work there, and the other who (I would find out in a few months’ time) was about to.

That “interview” was prescient, because in a matter of minutes Yale-NUS (which at this point, remember, had not a single student nor its own campus) was made tangible for me. And it was made tangible with a sense of infectious excitement, intellectual passion, and a desire to see and explore everything that Singapore and Southeast Asia has to offer. Those are three qualities that I think many would agree define the Yale-NUS experience today.

Some might put it as a chicken-and-egg problem: was Austin chosen to work here because he had the qualities they wanted this school to embody, or is Yale-NUS like that today because of Austin Shiner?

But for those of us here, and especially for those of us in the class of 2017 who have been here since the beginning, the chicken-and-egg riddle is easily solved. As he flew off last night to Taiwan for a new chapter of life, it can be said with seriousness and with immense gratitude that one person, perhaps above all others, has left an indelible mark of good at Yale-NUS College. Future classes of students who never met Austin will nonetheless know Austin precisely because they know Yale-NUS.

Thank you, Austin. Have a great year; keep the videos coming; and see you at graduation.

It Never Gets Easier, You Just Cope Better

In cycling it’s often said that “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” Anyone who practices regularly at a sport will know the sentiment. Train for ten years going up a single mountain climb and at the end it’ll hurt just as much as on day one; the only difference will be one’s average speed.

I spoke with a friend and fellow student here at Yale-NUS College over dinner recently. He had spent six weeks of his summer holidays at a Buddhist monastery in rural China. Each day he would be woken at four A.M. to begin the first of three sessions of meditation for the day. I wanted to know from him how he noticed his approach to meditation changing; how he observed his mind clearing over time, how it became easier, how he became better at it.

His response was that, in all honesty, it wasn’t the meditation that he remembers. It was the mosquitos that bit him constantly. At the monastery there was to be no killing of anything, including mosquitos, and while meditating he was forced to remain as still as possible. At the beginning it had been unbearable; he remembers hours hating the mosquitos, wanting to kill them all, angry that so little a thing could cause so much discomfort and could consume one’s mind so totally.

After six weeks, the mosquitos annoyed him exactly the same as they had at the start. He still noticed them all the same. But his attitude was one of resignation, knowing that within the confines of his situation, he could do nothing to alter the pain and annoyance.

It never got easier. Meditation wasn’t an antidote to his problems. But he learned that what was a choice was his response to the situation. It never got easier for him, but he did get better at it.

An Education is a Self-Inflicted Wound

We all stood on the green on the night before the start of a new academic year. We held candles, and the candles themselves had bases made of card to protect from hot wax. The President of Yale-NUS gave a brief speech, lit one of the professor’s candles, who in turn lit another’s, and so on. Our professors moved through the crowd and used their candles to light the students’. There were 600 of us all on the field with candles, catching up with professors and friends we hadn’t seen in months. It was a great time, and must’ve made a great sight.

As I stood talking to John Kelly, a visiting professor of anthropology from the University of Chicago (who I’ve previously studied the politics of sport with), my hand began to grow hotter and hotter. This is Singapore, where it was already hot and humid, and I thought vaguely that the heat from the lit candle was being felt by my hand. I passed the candle back and forth between my right and left hands, busy in conversation with Prof Kelly about his upcoming class this semester.

It dawned on me after maybe five minutes that the cardboard base of my candle had a hole in it, and for the entirety of this time hot wax had been flowing down onto my hands. My hands were by this point burning, and were entirely encrusted with hot wax. I rapidly blew out the candle, to the (half-serious) horror of a professor for whom no symbol is devoid of meaning.

The only way I could redeem myself was by muttering something along the lines of Bill Deresiewcz’s mantra that “an education is a self-inflicted wound”. There seemed no more fitting setting, no more appropriate time to learn this the hard way, than standing in a field talking to a professor and holding in my hands a metaphor for education that quite literally burned me.

Whether it be a cliche or somehow too formulaic, it nevertheless seemed to me to be an appropriate way to start the semester. I see Professor Kelly in class tomorrow.

What Is College For?: David Foster Wallace on Liberal Education and the Trenches of Adult Life

“This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

“I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College. May 21, 2005.

One of the questions faced these days by anyone giving a commencement address is whether to speak to the graduating seniors in the crowd before you, or whether to speak to the potential millions on YouTube. Many of these potential listeners in all parts of the world may be younger, perhaps just starting college, and your speech could come at just the right time to nudge their life in a slightly different direction—to make them conscious of their education, conscious of something important.

David Foster Wallace tried to speak to both at once. He spoke, to the graduating seniors before him, of the “the day to day trenches of adult existence” they were about to encounter. But he also spoke of the education they had just completed—the education they could not re-do, but could only try to make some sense of. This latter part of his speech is most important to those about to enter college. It is an ideal high school commencement address.

This is one of the paradoxes of Wallace’s commencement address. To have listened to his speech as a graduating senior, and to be told, perhaps for the first time, what my education was really about, would have struck me with a debilitating frustration. To go back and read those books again, and to have all those conversations again, with the knowledge that this all dealt with the most central aspect of existence might’ve put many of those seniors on very different life paths. But here they were being told about the “trenches” of existence, and what “day in day out” really means, perhaps without having ever realised what those four years at college had been for, how they could have limited the time they might spend in those trenches.

I was lucky enough to have been sent Wallace’s speech before entering college—and it was also sent to all students by Yale-NUS College’s Dean of Students the day before classes began in freshman year. This is how Wallace spoke to far more than those seated before him. And for all these people, the millions who listen to his speech online, understanding the meaning of their liberal education before entering college might have some immense effect.

It’s like in those sci-fi stories about an asteroid heading straight towards Earth, threatening human existence. Nudge the asteroid by even half a millimetre early enough (using a missile or something), and it will comfortably miss Earth. But leave it too late, until the asteroid is far closer to Earth, and the force required to knock it off its course might just be too great to be possible.

That’s the time value of experience. That’s also the power of writing and of speaking.

I didn’t properly grasp Wallace’s This is Water speech when I first read it, nor when I was sent it in freshman year. In fact, I’m sure I don’t grasp much of it even now. But from the start it gave me the sense that my education was about something larger. I felt then that it was about more than just a job and a career. It was this sense that let me push back when I was incentivised to connect my dots looking forward, and it has led to a fundamentally different college experience. As Wallace said, it has also let me learn how to give meaning to experiences.

The speech has also provided a reference point with which to understand my education. Each time I read it, I understand a little bit more of what Wallace was trying to get at. And I have no doubt that same will continue to happen for much of my adult life.

Connecting the Dots of Our Lives

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Steve Job’s Stanford commencement address is one of those talks I rediscover perhaps once a year, watch twice in a row, feel that my life has changed, and then forget about a few days later. As much as I want to hold onto all that wisdom and let it change me, life always seems to get in the way.

I wrote recently about the difficulties with wanting to go abroad to do something different, to discover new interests and passions. To go abroad for study, for instance, requires an application that forces you to outline how this experience “aligns with your academic and career goals”. To be honest—to say simply that it doesn’t align, and that’s precisely the point—is to put you in a prisoner’s dilemma scenario with other applicants.

But I think that’s applicable not just to going abroad, but to what we want to do with our lives. Perhaps part of the reason I forget again and again about Jobs’ speech after feeling so deeply moved is that the daily reality of thinking about my future forces me to connect the dots looking forward.

Yale’s Office of Career Services recently asked me to send them my latest resume in order to talk through how it will set me up for the type of work I want to do over summer and after graduation. Through even requesting a resume, the question asked of us is not what do you want to do, but what can you do. The entire conversation is framed from there, with possibilities built on who we were rather than what we want to be and what we could be. We are incentivised by college career offices and employers to connect the dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging. That is a fallacy, an ever so costly one, and we must recognise that change is the point of our education. To leave college on the same path as one began leaves me wondering again what our time here was for.

A resume is the ultimate dot-connecter, and it requires that those dots are perfectly linear. I’ve heard from other students who went to their college career services office, who sat down with an adviser and were instantly labelled. “I can see from your resume that you will go into public policy”, the adviser says confidently, going off two previous public sector summer jobs the individual had listed.

Those summer jobs themselves were chosen by happenstance and serendipity! At age 20, to be told what career options are open to you based on a cumulative four months’ work! You wanted to be home one summer, you knew someone who offered you an interesting job, so you took it. Chance, fortuity; taking opportunities as they are presented: this is the right thing to do, and it is not connecting the dots forward. But to then be told by someone, supposedly a professional who knows how to best set you up for a career, that your dots will align only with a limited range of others… Your life’s work decided by happenstance!

I exaggerate, but perhaps only slightly.

And we know the answer were we to say, no, that’s not what I want to do with my life, in fact I want to be an artist and work on climate change. “But what experience do you have?” Job applications list as a requirement “former relevant work experience”. Your adviser tells you, “You’re competing for this museum curation job with other applicants who have spent the past three summers in that type of work. Why would they take you over them?” Friends and family say about your public policy job offer, “it’s a fantastic opportunity and a prestigious career, you should be pleased.” Resignedly, you decide that perhaps the public policy job wouldn’t be so bad. And so you connect one more summer’s dot, and as that line becomes longer it becomes yet more difficult to begin a new set of dots entirely. Each dot acts as a magnet, drawing yet more similar dots to it, and the more there are the stronger the magnetic field becomes. Two dots connect on your resume and decide the next fifty for you.

I exaggerate, but perhaps not much.

In class with David Brooks this semester we spent a few sessions discussing how to choose and shape a career. We were discussing careers in the traditional narrative of “needing the stars to line up”, in the same way that Jobs talked about your dots connecting. Someone frustratedly said “It’s not about how well the stars line up, but how creatively you draw a constellation between them.” I hadn’t heard that before, and it hit home.

The same advice is embedded in Jobs’ talk. From India to calligraphy to Mac OS is no path that a career adviser could ever have seen, or which Jobs could have put on a resume. “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He did what he felt was right, and later, after working out what he wanted to do, realised how these past experiences could make him better at whatever work he wanted to devote himself to. Had Jobs met with a career adviser or needed to apply for a job through a resume, where would he have ended up? What creativity, passion and talent would have been wasted?

We need to be aware of how our personal narratives and the lives they lead to are shaped by the structures of resumes and career thinking. Without understanding this, well-meaning career advice may hold us back from drawing a constellation between the dots of our lives, forcing us instead to draw an all-too-straight line between them.