story Nicholas Lua, Contributing Reporter
When you accepted your admission to this liberal arts college, did you know what you were signing up for? “There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.” This is the statement on freedom of expression on the Yale-NUS College website. The spirit of the liberal arts should not merely extend to resisting one’s instinct to feel offended when confronted by opposing views. Professors and students alike should also broach ideas in a justified, well-reasoned way. We should attempt to engage meaningfully with views different from, or even opposed to, our own. However, to some first-years, the Scientific Inquiry (SI) lecture on Aug. 18 might have been a step too far.
To illustrate the differences between the theory of Evolution and Creationism, Assistant Professor of Science William Piel thumbed through a bible and juxtaposed photos of parasite infections to excerpts from the Christian hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. The SI Lecture was controversial not because evolution was discussed, but because some disagreed with the delivery. It is natural for first-years to enter college with expectations of how subjects should be taught. Even some students who accept the theory of evolution took offense at the satirical manner of the lecture because they felt that the lecture specifically targeted Christianity. Others felt that it was counterproductive for a lecturer to trivialize and mock religious beliefs to make a point. Alexia Davidson ’19 noted that it was a “perfectly good lecture in terms of the content,” but the introduction was “too much” and “really detracted” from the lecture. At the same time, it must be recognized that faculty are subject to immense pressure to formulate entertaining lectures to maintain student interest. Could this be a case of students taking a well-meaning professor with benign intentions the wrong way?
For Mr. Piel, the presentation of the lecture was carefully chosen to provoke critical thinking and challenge students’ worldviews. “I find that satire is a useful device for illustrating points,” he said. We would be doing a disservice if we go through life isolating these concepts as if they never intersect, he said. But when concepts do intersect, he acknowledges that it “does create a certain discomfort.” Based on my interactions with multiple first-year students, I felt that the message of the lecture was largely lost on those who could not look beyond the abrasive nature of the delivery.
The SI lecture is a prime example of how students can sometimes misunderstand the intentions of the faculty. While such miscommunication is bound to happen, this incident is particularly problematic because students are only three weeks into college and might have yet to assimilate the spirit of the liberal arts. It is therefore a valid fear that students might come away from the lecture with a distorted impression of the liberal arts: as something that promotes the exposure of diverse perspectives at the expense of offending others. They might not recognize that the goal of a liberal arts education is to contend in an open-minded, intellectual space, and not merely to sensationalize ideas and create controversy for its own sake. It may be more judicious to save such satirical methods for later on in the school year.
Ultimately, the corollary to the diversity we cherish is divisiveness. But a clash need not become a conflict, just like how staunch believers of faith can still co-exist harmoniously with others in a secular society. Students come to Yale-NUS precisely because they do not want the average college experience. They come here to be challenged. Even when mistakes occur, and members of our community, student and faculty alike, offend one another, we must remember that we are in control of our individual reactions. The true test of the liberal arts spirit lies in our ability to gracefully accept challenges to our belief systems. We should not interpret them as insults but recognize that the defining beauty of our liberal arts college lies in the freedom to express such ideas—well reasoned and fair—in open-minded discussion.