story |  Rachel Ong, Guest Contributor

photo | Dave Chappell

What do you think is the greatest challenge confronting humans today? Do you feel our liberal arts education and the Common Curriculum in Yale-NUS have prepared us to tackle global issues of our age? What have we taken away from the Common Curriculum? And what have we not?

As I turned in my capstone (finally!), I inevitably began to reflect on my journey at Yale-NUS College, especially on the significant milestones of our education. One thing pops to mind: the Common Curriculum. Ever since my first day as a freshie, Yale-NUS has promoted the Common Curriculum as the foundational body of knowledge that exposes us to “multiple modes of inquiry, to some of the timeless ideas of human existence, and to many challenging issues of our age”.

While I sincerely appreciate my experiences in the Common Curriculum, I found that, in terms of addressing today’s many challenges, the concept of environmental sustainability was absent from my Common Curriculum experience. After learning through my electives and other platforms (e.g. Rector’s Teas) about social issues ranging from gender inequality, wealth disparity, and forced mass migration to increasing environmental degradation, I realised that these challenges confronting the world today are deeply intersectional. They are all interwoven and interrelated, embedded in the greatest challenge of the 21st century — climate change.

Thus, my one regret about the Common Curriculum is that the concept of the environmental crisis, which grounds every other social issue today, was not actively taught during my time. Climate change is something on which I feel that every Yale-NUS student should be well-informed, for it feeds into the knowledge and application of every other discipline we learn here. My humble plea? That our existing Common Curriculum incorporates environmental frameworks: for instance, introducing eco-criticism into literary analysis in Literature and Humanities and introducing readings on environmental ethics in Philosophy and Political Thought.

As a Global Affairs, non-Environmental Studies (ES) senior interested in global maritime security, this is my argument for the “greening” of the Common Curriculum.

The environmental crisis begins with our mismanagement of the Earth.We consume far too many resources, beyond the Earth’s capacity to regenerate them. This leads to the degradation of the environment, resulting in phenomena such as biodiversity loss, increasing temperatures, and rising sea levels. However, these effects are not confined to environmental damage and habitat loss for populations. The problematic way humans extract, use and dispose of the Earth’s resources is insidiously connected to every other social issue today. This concept is termed socioecological inequality. It imagines networks of interactions between humans, non-humans and ecosystems that weave together to create hierarchies of power. These advantage some and disadvantage others. Thus, socio-ecological inequality that stems from our mismanagement of the Earth’s resources spills over into all major global challenges today. This environmental crisis spans majors and disciplines: gender disparities, religious resurgence and fundamentalism, income inequality, forced human migration, global terrorism… the list goes on.

This realization, that climate change is deeply related to other global challenges, is why Yale-NUS should incorporate more aspects of environmental education into the Common Curriculum. Doing so would better equip us with interdisciplinary thinking as we grapple with complex global problems stemming from environmental degradation. The way I envision it, the Common Curriculum would not just prepare us to engage with the timeless ideas of humanity (which it already does wonderfully), but also to confront the problems posed by climate change. Of course, some of us may, in fact, do soas we amass our electives and connect the dots between them. I believe every Yale-NUS student is astute enough to do that, but unfortunately we all have a limited number of courses we can take given our major and minor requirements. Also, the Introduction to Environmental Studies course, which covers the intersectionality between various socioecological problems sufficiently, is oversubscribed every semester. If students already show a strong interest in environmental education, and given that environmental change is a global challenge of unprecedented importance, why not learn about this challenge from the beginning of the Common Curriculum? Why not make it available to every student without compromising our academic credit requirements?

I found my knowledge of environmental sustainability to be very practical in the working world. During my previous two internships at the Ministry of Defense Singapore, knowing about socioecological inequality and its related concepts made me aware of the various levels of society I had to consider in policymaking. For example, in reviewing policies for logistics procurement, concepts like multi-criteria decision analysis from ecological economics were indispensable in the policymaking process. Environmental ethics too played a role in determining land-use policies. Even in a job that is relatively far-removed from explicit environmental management, these foundational skills and mental schemas proved vital, and very, very useful. The intersectionality of environmental frameworks makes them very versatile and valuable to study. Students will use them outside of the Common Curriculum, both in the working world and in pursuing their desired disciplines.

Some of you may argue that my plea would involve a trade-off between my proposed changes and existing courses in the Common Curriculum, or that it may prioritize ES over the other majors. This is not my intention. I do not seek to crowd out other branches of knowledge, which are immeasurably worthy in their own right. Rather, I recommend integrating environmental concepts in a way that enhances the content of other disciplines in the Common Curriculum.

I am excited about the rumors circulating on a new Climate Change course as part of the Scientific Inquiry module. It is wonderful news that the faculty are devoting space within the Common Curriculum to this global challenge. What remains is the need to build links between courses to foster conversation on climate change within the Common Curriculum. This should be done in a way to challenge students to identify: 1) how we know about climate change exacerbating other social problems (and vice versa) in the world today, and 2) what we can do about it, with respect to the causes we are passionate for, and in line with our eventual specializations in the future.

Times are changing. I believe one of Yale-NUS’s greatest strengths is its potential for flexibility and contemporary relevance. Our Common Curriculum holds so much promise; Yale-NUS is, after all, still in the midst of establishing its academic tradition for the years to come. There is no better time to shape our Common Curriculum than now, to better prepare Yale-NUS students to tackle climate change and all related contemporary challenges. We can keep up with the times and educate ourselves for the future. We can live up to our school’s vision and mission, positioning ourselves as qualified individuals stepping out into the world, armed with an education attuned to the global issues confronting us today.

The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to:

The author would like to extend special thanks to Dominic Choa (2018), Kimberly Hoong (2018), and Margaret Schumann (2017) for contributing to the writing of this article, and to Professor Terry Nardin, Professor Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, and Professor Marvin Montefrio for their invaluable insights on improving the Common Curriculum.