story Matthew Ware, Guest Columnist

Students hanging out at the Saga buttery. (David Zhang)

Students hanging out at the Saga buttery. (David Zhang)

In his interview with The Octant (“Yale-NUS to Open a Fourth Residential College in Four Years”), Governing Board member Roland Betts suggested that “there aren’t really good liberal arts models in Asia”, and that “if we find, say 10-15 years from now, there are seven or eight new universities in Asia that copied the model of Yale-NUS, that would be a great success.” I find this view troubling, because it suggests that Yale-NUS College is an educational export, a product to be expanded with a recipe and brand, and somehow represents the first “good” model for liberal arts in Asia.

First, in his assertion that there are no good models for liberal arts in Asia, Mr. Betts fails to recognize historical traditions like the Chinese Academies (Shuyuan), as well as modern and indigenous institutions like Yonsei Underwood College in Korea. While studying liberal arts is currently not as common in Asia as it is in the United States, the notion that Yale University is responsible for importing liberal arts scholarship to an entire region of the world is ludicrous. To the contrary, there is a fairly strong argument to be made that liberal arts began in Asia. A vast system of academies (Shuyuan) was established in China during the Tang Dynasty in 725 when nothing similar existed in Europe. The Shuyuan eschewed fixed terms of study and degrees in favor of open inquiry and lifelong scholarship.

As a student of the Common Curriculum, I find it more than a little ironic that Mr. Betts believes “education is about to explode” on the continent that brought us Confucius, Valmiki, Gandhi, Sun Yat-Sen, and the Dalai Lama.

Second, it imagines higher education as a commodity, and our college as the first location of a franchise store, which can open cookie-cutter versions of itself in different places. This model is inherently unhinged from location and context; in its transnationalism it is ignorant to its surroundings. Yale-NUS, by this view, is not a local institution, so much as a generic, globalized institution which just happens to be based in Singapore.

I don’t often engage in the rhetoric of exceptionalism, and neither do I think that Yale-NUS is inherently fragile, even in its beginning stages. However, as a student, I do see another side to things. The lofty goal of the Common Curriculum to blend East and West isn’t as effortless as our promotional materials make it sound to be. It doesn’t just happen when you put Aristotle and Mencius in the same class—it involves difficult conversations about identity, privilege, and the legacy of colonialism. We aren’t a magic island of free speech and expression—liberalizing Singapore—as the Fareed Zakaria’s of the world would hope.

But precisely because we are not, no one takes those things for granted. We’ve had countless debates about the meaning and value of expression. And as much as we celebrate Yale-NUS as a place where people from different cultures, nationalities, and walks of life live and work peacefully together, we must also recognize this has not happened simply because we live in suites and eat in the same dining hall. It happens because students make tough choices about when to go home and when to stay. It happens because students have tough conversations about the meanings of apologies and forgiveness. It happens because everyone has to walk to the UTown Green together when the fire alarm goes off—again.

Sometimes I worry that Yale-NUS might become too much like an expatriate’s enclave when I hear American professors only cite examples from the US, or when international students say they mainly like Singapore because of their ability to take cheap, short flights to other places. But I don’t think it is, because much more often, I see international students who write complete translations of their Facebook posts in Chinese, or go everywhere with local friends from church, or eat late night meals of kaya toast and mee goreng in a buttery we renamed the Shiok Shack. That isn’t the end, but it’s a start. It’s a kind of connection you can’t copy, export, or commercialize, because it has to happen from the ground up.