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.

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.

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.