American Liberal Education Is Happening in Singapore

While broad, conceptual study is being phased out of U.S. universities, colleges in Asia are starting to adopt such traditions.

Nicolas Lannuzel / Flikr

Last week, I traveled to Singapore to attend the opening of a new liberal-arts college campus. That college is Yale-NUS—the product of a partnership forged about seven years ago between Yale and the National University of Singapore. Students and faculty have been working at the institution for a few years already, but this was its official inauguration. Pericles Lewis,Yale-NUS’s founding president, joked that the campus’s coming-out party marked a rare festivity: It’s not every day that one is able to celebrate the opening of a new liberal-arts college.

Here we were, in Singapore, to launch a new American-style college, while back in the United States the principles of that model—broad, contextual, and conceptual study—were under enormous pressure. The irony wasn’t lost on any of us. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, Korea, and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration, and experimentation that are key to the American traditions of liberal education. These are traditions that I, as the president of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, champion.

In his foreward to Yale-NUS’s inaugural curriculum report, Lewis quotes the Confucian philosopher Mencius’s description of the “transforming influence of education” as being “like a timely rain.” For many Americans who labor in the fields of liberal education, it has recently felt like a drought as financial support and public understanding dries up. During this time of arid anxiety—in which so many pundits and policymakers are calling for quick utilitarian nanodegrees or certificates—even defenders of broad inquiry often find themselves promising to quench the public’s thirst for a return-on-investment with a vocational justification of liberal-arts education.

But perhaps these defenders need a more untimely rain if they are to preserve the “transforming influence” of college. Liberal education in American history has often been powerful because it has challenged the status quo. Liberal education today that is worthy of the name must recover the capacity to be untimely so as to equip teachers and students with the courage and the ability to resist the demand for the narrowly vocational.

Lewis identified in Singapore the rare opportunity of starting a new college from scratch—and one backed with the enormous resources of two prominent research universities. He and his team managed to hire scores of new faculty and engage them in discussions about curricula for the institution as a whole, which I find to be one of the most remarkable aspects of the Yale-NUS experiment. I am especially impressed by Lewis’s decision to “decline to institutionalize faculty within departments representing the academic disciplines.” This has led to a re-conceptualization of majors as complements to a core curriculum, and, in turn, to the welcoming of faculty with diverse skill sets over those tethered to divisive academic specializations. In higher education, the lure of professional recognition through increasingly narrow disciplines has been growing stronger since the creation of the research university in the late 19th century—and this has had a pernicious influence on undergraduate teaching for decades. Far too many faculty feel an allegiance to “their field” rather than to the teaching of “the whole student.”

And the consequences of excessive academic specialization are made worse by emphasizing vocational training in postsecondary education. Like many others, I have defended liberal education by demonstrating why vocational training alone is inadequate—but often pointing to the long-term career benefits of broad learning. In an effort to appeal to students and their parents, I’ve learned how to make arguments for the utility of contextual and conceptual learning; I can cite the evidence for the lifelong economic advantages of a broad course of study; I’m able to point to illustrious examples of “innovators” who draw on their humanistic study to productively “disrupt” an economic sector.

But in Singapore, as I contemplated the idealism of the founding of a new college, I worried that advocates like myself may have become too adept at arguing that a liberal education is the best bet for becoming a leader in the digital economy. After all, the enemy of thinking, and hence of education, is conformity. The (occasionally hyperbolic) accusation that the great colleges and universities of America today are producing sheep—no matter how excellent—is a valid one. The response that higher-education institutions in the United States are in fact incubators hatching heroic entrepreneurs is more of a confession than a rebuttal.

As I celebrated the establishment of this new college, I found myself recalling that American liberal education at its best has little to do with the debate about a “common core” or about distribution requirements. This tradition is about freedom as the practice of inquiry. That’s why in 1829 David Walker talked about education when calling for slave rebellion among his fellow African Americans: “I pray,” he wrote, “that the Lord may undeceive my ignorant brethren and permit them to throw away pretensions and seek after the substance of learning.” That’s why, almost a century later, W.E.B. Du Bois criticized the call for education to be more vocational, writing that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.”

I also thought of Jane Addam’s commitment to empathy and to affectionate interpretation, and of John Dewey’s “practical idealism.” Addams supported learning that enabled one to better understand and act on points of view quite different from one’s own, and Dewey envisioned a pragmatic liberal education that would address the pressing problems of the day with a variety of perspectives and methodologies. My highest aspiration for the new “American-style” college in Singapore is the aspiration that Walker and Du Bois, Addams and Dewey had for liberal education: to promote freedom as a good in itself and to be a vehicle for expanding individuals’ knowledge of themselves and the world. That would be a most welcome “untimely rain.”