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.

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.