You’ve heard about the controversy. But the most interesting thing about Yale-NUS College in Singapore is how it’s remaking liberal education.
Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.
In a section of a class at Yale-NUS College called Comparative Social Institutions, urban studies professor Jane Jacobs is talking with her students about readings that discuss differences in Eastern and Western thinking. “Let’s pull back from the reading and call on our sense of ourselves,” says Jacobs. (She’s not related to the late author of The Death and Life of American Cities, though they have the same name.) “Where are we on this scale? Sure, these may be stereotypes, but do we live by these stereotypes nevertheless?”
A Taiwanese student, raised in Vietnam, says, “My personality switches when I use different languages. I feel I have more authority and autonomy at school and in English.”
“Does this school have an American way of thinking?” asks Jacobs.
“We’re being taught that we’re special and we can do anything,” says an Australian student in reply.
“In this school, practically everyone is a ‘third-culture kid,’” says a Chinese-Filipino student who was raised in a Chinese community in the Philippines and educated at an Americanized school. “My mom says, ‘I like you better when you’re with your Chinese grandparents, because you behave better.”
Late in August, in week two of classes at Yale-NUS College, things are going much the way a group of Yale faculty first imagined three years ago, when they began sketching the outlines of a curriculum for a new liberal arts college in Singapore. The idea was to take the idea of a core curriculum and make it global and cross-cultural.
The college, a joint venture between Yale and the government-run National University of Singapore, opened in August on the NUS campus with 155 freshmen and 50 faculty, the pioneers of what will in a few years be a college of about 1,000 students and 100 faculty.
The college is in temporary quarters on a newly developed parcel of land (formerly a golf course) adjacent to NUS’s main campus in a suburban area of Singapore. For now, Yale-NUS’s students, president, rector, and some faculty are sharing space with NUS faculty and students in a group of high-rise buildings on campus. The buildings are cheerfully modern, with white stucco, brown wood, open-air corridors, and lush tropical foliage. Across a steel construction wall, the Yale-NUS community can see (and hear) their future campus under construction. Slated for completion in 2015, it will have three residential colleges in high-rise towers, plus dining halls, classrooms, and performance spaces.
Yale-NUS has pulled out all the stops to attract students who might be reluctant to try a brand-new institution. In addition to the creature comforts common to elite American colleges, there are all kinds of perks: after a week of orientation in Singapore in July, the inaugural class was flown to Yale with the faculty for a three-week sojourn in Berkeley College, where they were immersed in all things Blue (including faculty lectures, residential college pride, and a cappella singing). In October, regular classes stopped for a week so students could take one of several intensive “Week Seven” courses abroad: exploring the aftermath of a tsunami in Indonesia with a geology professor, studying a live performance of the Indian epic the Ramayana (which they’ll have read in class) in central Java with an ethnomusicologist, going to Greece to connect ancient art, literature, and philosophy with its physical context. And the college has lined up companies in Asia and the United States that will offer summer internships—including some that are being called “mystery internships.” “We tell them, ‘on the day of your departure I’ll have a plane ticket with your name on it and tell you where you’re going,’” says Anastasia Vrachnos, the dean in charge of Yale-NUS’s Centre for International and Professional Experience.
But the heart of the student experience at Yale-NUS is an idea that was the norm at Yale and other American colleges some 150 years ago: a common curriculum. All 155 freshmen are enrolled in the same four courses this semester, each of which includes both lectures and smaller discussion sections. Besides Comparative Social Institutions, students are taking Literature and the Humanities; Scientific Inquiry, an interdisciplinary introduction to the scientific method; and Philosophy and Political Thought.
On any given weekday morning, the college’s entire student body is in a lecture hall together. In addition to the two or more professors who might be lecturing that day (the courses are all team-taught), you’ll also find a number of other professors, who after all have nowhere else to be. “The faculty have been going to each other’s lectures,” says dean of faculty Charles Bailyn ’81. “In the hiring process, we deliberately sought out faculty who were interested in looking outside their disciplines. We put candidates in meetings across disciplines, and we very quickly found out who’s able to work that way.” In both the lectures and sections I sat in on, students and faculty frequently brought up ideas from other courses, knowing that everyone would understand the references.
This approach to liberal education promises to make Yale-NUS not just a beachhead in Asia for Western-style liberal arts education, but a critical rethinking of how American colleges—Yale included—teach undergraduates. Last April, after Yale-NUS’s first faculty members had spent ten months in New Haven and Singapore blocking out the curriculum, their curriculum committee published a 90-page report. The committee found much to criticize in American liberal education today, and they proposed much that is very different.
In the Yale-NUS view, the system of “general education” requirements—or distribution requirements, as Yale calls them—is an ineffective means of ensuring cross-disciplinary literacy. Students can usually fulfill the requirements and still “remain squarely within their comfort zones”; and the courses they take are usually ordinary departmental offerings, not designed to introduce a new student to an entire area of study. Yale-NUS’s solution is the common curriculum for the first year (and part of the second). The goal is to give all undergraduates rigorous introductions to broadly defined areas of inquiry. The common curriculum, the report argues, also helps to build a more cohesive student community. It quotes Andrew Delbanco of Columbia on that university’s core undergraduate curriculum: “Once they have gone through the Core, no student is a complete stranger to any other.”
The report questions the dominance of academic departments in undergraduate education, pointing out that they were designed around the specialized scholarship of graduate school. In the late 1800s, as the German university model took hold in American education, the report notes, “faculty were divided into departments reflecting disciplinary communities and came to feel more allegiance to those communities than to the college as a whole, and student education in a particular discipline was elevated as the most serious aspect of collegiate study.” From the Yale-NUS point of view, it’s not necessarily the best way for undergraduates to spend their education. “Academic disciplines are correctly organized for those who want to go on to graduate study,” says Bailyn, “but your average history major is far more likely to go to law school or to work for Bain.”
Yale-NUS has no departments. Its faculty are organized into three broad divisions: science, social science, and humanities. (They work together within those divisions—and across them—in planning and revising the curriculum.) But the faculty did not go so far as to eliminate majors, conceding that “developing a sophisticated understanding of a particular discipline is valuable not merely as training for a future in the field, but also in its own right as a formative intellectual experience.” Instead, they reduced the number of majors. Yale College offers 83, but Yale-NUS has only 14, mostly broader in nature: anthropology, arts and humanities, economics, environmental studies, global affairs, history, life sciences, literature, mathematical and computational sciences, philosophy, physical sciences, psychology, urban studies, and finally, the combined major of philosophy, politics, and economics.
Among the other goals set out in the report is teaching communication skills. At Yale-NUS, writing and oral presentation skills aren’t taught in specialized courses, but integrated into classroom activities across the curriculum.
Can you come up to the front? It makes it more uncomfortable.”
With a smile, humanities professor Rajeev Patke is asking one of his students to leave his seat and present his argument to the whole classroom. The student comes up and stands in front of a whiteboard.
“But you can sit,” says Patke, gesturing to a chair.
The student instead stands on the chair. “No,” he says. “If we’re going to make it uncomfortable, let’s make it really uncomfortable.”
Patke is leading a discussion section on the Ramayana, the first reading in the course Literature and the Humanities, and he’s making sure his new students get plenty of practice speaking up in class. They have spent the first part of the class divided into “pro-Rama” and “anti-Rama” factions, based on their reactions to the title character and hero of the Ramayana. Each side discusses and hones its argument. The anti-Rama camp looks at the hero through modern eyes and finds him lazy, cruel, and sexist, and complains that he does not ever reflect on his actions and grow or change. The pro-Rama camp emphasizes that despite his faults, he worked to good ends. And they cite Confucius in arguing that the god Rama doesn’t change the way Western heroes might, because he is one with the Tao and thus constant and unchanging.
Soon, the conversation evolves into a comparison of Western universalism/individualism and Eastern contextualism/collectivism, a topic all the students are exploring in Comparative Social Institutions (the class where Jane Jacobs was asking students about stereotypes). The students argue that Rama seems Western in some cases—holding legalistically to an oath when all around him are ready to excuse him from fulfilling it—and Eastern in others when he justifies his actions by their context.
Yale-NUS has students from 26 countries on six continents, most coming from Singapore (62 percent), followed by the United States, India, China, Malaysia, and Canada. Although the majority are Singaporean, the island nation is itself so diverse that the college represents a remarkable blend of cultures and experiences. Pericles Lewis, the college’s president, says that when the students were at Yale this summer, the Yale faculty who lectured to them remarked on “how different it is to be teaching to people from all over the globe.”
The inaugural class was chosen from 11,400 applicants; a college spokesperson says the admission rate was “under 4 percent”—lower than Harvard’s or Yale’s. But the number of applicants may have been inflated by the fact that applicants to Yale College were given the option of applying to Yale-NUS by simply checking a box on their Yale application. The college’s yield (that is, the proportion of admitted students who chose to attend) was 52 percent, lower than most Ivy schools but higher than the top American liberal arts colleges. Lewis says that some in the class turned down Yale for Yale-NUS and that “all the Ivy schools are on the list” of schools from which Yale-NUS students turned down admission offers.
For these students—and for the faculty who have signed on—Singapore’s authoritarian government and restrictions on free expression clearly were not a deal-breaker. But a number of critics disagree, maintaining that no liberal arts institution can flourish in Singapore.
Since the plan for Yale-NUS was first announced three years ago, those critics have lambasted Yale for becoming a partner with the authoritarian Singaporean government. (Singapore is funding the venture.) Ruled since its independence in 1965 by the People’s Action Party, Singapore is known for its extensive use of capital punishment, its use of criminal libel laws to silence critics of the government, and its rules against public protest. Advocates of gay and lesbian civil rights also point to the nation’s laws against homosexual acts, although the laws are rarely enforced.
The arguments against Yale’s role in the college have been articulated in op-ed articles, letters to the Yale administration from alumni, and an April 2012 Yale College faculty resolution expressing “concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore.” Critics say that Yale shouldn’t lend legitimacy to the Singaporean government and that the nation’s repressive attitude toward dissent is incompatible with the academic and political freedom necessary for a liberal education—and that it is only a matter of time before the two collide.
In response to these concerns, Yale says that it has negotiated guarantees of academic freedom and freedom of expression on the Yale-NUS campus, although those guarantees do not extend to public protest off campus. Former Yale president Richard Levin ’74PhD has argued that instead of shunning Singapore because its approach to human rights is not the same as ours, it is better to “engage and hope that through conversation and interaction there’s going to be some advance in mutual understanding and perhaps some liberalization of the society.” Many alumni have expressed support for this view.
It is much too early for either side to have proved its point about Yale-NUS. But for now, the faculty and students I spoke to said they had no sense that any subjects or conversations were off limits at Yale-NUS, in the classroom or the dorm room. “Freedom of speech, in my experience, is not going to be a problem at Yale-NUS,” says science professor Jeremy Kua. Already, a group that supports gay and lesbian civil rights, puckishly named “The G Spot,” has organized on campus and has a website and Facebook page.*
In about ten minutes, you’re going to present. Most of you are going to be in a pretty confused state,” says Jeremy Kua.
Kua has divided the 17 students in his section of Scientific Inquiry into four groups and handed each group a stack of cards representing elements in a fictional “Alien Periodic Table.” The cards supply information on each element. It’s up to the students to work out how the aliens’ periodic table is organized. They’ve been working at it for several minutes, coming up with schemes based on atomic weight, number of interactions with other elements, even color.
“Can we assume that it’s the same as our periodic table?” asks one student with a background in chemistry.
“You can’t assume anything, but you can try using prior knowledge,” Kua replies.
Soon, the four teams present their tentative groupings of elements, each with some blank spaces in the grid and some odd elements off to the side. Kua is reassuring. “You’re not going to get close to figuring it out today,” he says. “I will give you more data in the next class, but first I want you to struggle.”
Kua devised the fictional universe of elements himself. The project goes along with a lecture he’ll give to the whole student body the next day about the real periodic table. Part of the goal of Scientific Inquiry is to teach students how inquiry is carried out in different areas of science, and Kua says their struggle to sort out the alien table “mirrors what happens historically.” Just as scientists work independently, then learn from each other in conferences and publications, Kua’s students meet and present their findings, then go back to the problem—and get more elements to incorporate in the next class.
Of all the pieces of the Yale-NUS curriculum, science has been the hardest to adapt to a liberal arts core curriculum. Even highly gifted students come to college with widely varying experience in—and aptitude for—science and math. And learning in the traditional scientific disciplines is cumulative in nature, with a lot of basic knowledge necessary just to understand essential concepts, so the broad-survey approach doesn’t work as well here as in the humanities and social sciences.
The sequence at Yale-NUS begins with Scientific Inquiry, which is specifically designed for all students regardless of previous exposure to science. Through hands-on activities like the alien periodic table, it looks at different approaches to research in a variety of scientific disciplines.
In the second semester, all students take Quantitative Reasoning, a course that treats numbers in the same way that Scientific Inquiry treats the scientific method. Students will leave, it is hoped, with a firm grasp on probability, statistics, and how data are used in arguments and decision-making.
Also in the second semester, students who want to major in sciences will begin an intensive two-semester course called Integrated Science, which introduces concepts from all the scientific disciplines through a common theme. (This year, it will be water.) Nonscientists will take a full-year course as sophomores called Foundations of Science, designed to ensure that, as a curriculum guide puts it, they are “competent and confident in the use of scientific language and modes of explanation.”
Yale-NUS science students who want to go to graduate school, says faculty dean Charles Bailyn—an astronomer—will be properly prepared despite their nontraditional start in science study. “We talked to the graduate schools and found out what’s really essential for them,” he says, adding that the total amount of science studied by science majors at Yale-NUS is comparable to most American colleges.
Graduate school, the critics’ objections to Yale-NUS and Singapore, the finer points of the curricular experiment they’re a part of—all these questions seemed far from the minds of the students I spoke with at Yale-NUS. Like freshmen everywhere, they are very enthusiastic about their new lives, new friends, and new ideas.
Bailyn suggests that what the students have in common is “a certain degree of adventurousness,” a trait that would presumably be necessary for Singaporean students to take the leap outside the usual highly structured Singaporean educational system—and for international students to leave home for an untested new college that doesn’t even know yet exactly what it’ll be teaching the students in their junior years.
Over a box lunch between classes in August, some of those students talked about their choice. Xie Yihao, who is from China but went to boarding school in Singapore, said he was drawn to the liberal arts and that Yale-NUS is a “once-in-a-lifetime experience. There’s not a lot of chances to be in on the founding of a college.”
Nia Lambert of Alpharetta, Georgia, “turned down Princeton,” she said. “Everyone assumed I would go there.” But she had been drawn into Asian culture through anime and had taught herself Korean, so the idea of going to school in Asia was appealing. “And you know how you walk around colleges and you see the old black-and-white pictures of the first this and the first that? And you think, that’ll be me.”
This sentence was edited after publication for a clarification: it originally described the G Spot as "a gay and lesbian group."