Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Neoliberal Arts

Story | Shawn Hoo (he/him), Guest Writer 
Photo | Martin Choo (he/him)

Under the guise of “educational innovations,” the top leadership of the National University of Singapore (NUS) has unilaterally decommissioned Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) without so much as a warning to alumni, students, staff, or faculty. 

The NUS President’s Office has a slick marketing campaign to sell this new beast to the media and his prospective students. Assembled from the dissolved limbs of two teenage institutions: it will be fresh and “interdisciplinary,” to help undergraduates navigate this “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world”—all this at a “greater scale” since bigger is, invariably, better.  

In reality, the ingredients that make up this beast—the New College—are much more sinister: the liberal arts and neoliberalism. Although it is instinctive to think of the free thinker as opposed to the logic of profit, universities worldwide have discovered that the two can be rather compatible bedfellows as employers begin to value critical thinking, cross-disciplinary training, creativity, managed debate and disagreement, and the whole gamut of liberal arts-speak. 

After controlled experiments at a miniature scale—two decades for USP and just a single decade for Yale-NUS—the two institutions have grown old enough for slaughter. They have fattened us sufficiently, and we graduates have proved ourselves exceptionally marketable as employees; NUS too can proudly boast of its liberal credentials and academic freedom (the latter part is, of course, only a veneer). Time then for an upgrade to the neoliberal arts: where an entire philosophy of education is scalable and sellable; where community-making and identity-building can be quickly cut and pasted with a slick new name.

Unfortunately, an intellectual and social community of learners cannot be scaled. This is not an “educational innovation”, it is an age-old way of running and expanding a business. Has this always been the top university administrators’ endgame for these liberal arts ventures? To be slaughtered and then replicated en masse? 

For all of us who were, unbeknownst to us, experimental subjects—alumni, students, faculty, staff—Yale-NUS was a place where, we were led to believe, we could truly build a community of learners who studied a curriculum we actively wanted to shape; for all of the well-considered criticism of our cloistered elitism, a real place where we wanted to find out how academic inquiry could meet social engagement; a physical home where residential living can be innovated on with policies such as gender-neutral living (a first on Singapore campuses); a true opportunity to find our place in the higher education landscape in Singapore, in Asia, for the World—or so our vision used to go. 

We took every opportunity not just to theorize but to enact what we thought the liberal arts could look like in Singapore. It takes time to build a community, and that’s what this unilateral power move announced by NUS President Tan Eng Chye fails to account for. My heart shatters to even think that this nascent community we were still in the process of building will now be merged, dissolved, evolved, expanded, incarnated—pick your euphemism—and ultimately converted into a business and sold as a catchy innovation. 

It would have been laudable to open up more liberal arts initiatives—ones that truly fostered community, academic freedom, intellectual curiosity, social engagement—but this is not one of them. (And this is not even about Yale—who cares about Yale?) What this “strategic realignment” achieves is to dismantle existing communities. Are the values of community making, central to the liberal arts, slowly but surely being transformed into the pursuit of individual competencies and skills? Can we now buy mass-produced free thinking on the market? 

And so the university led us to believe that we were subjects with agency to shape our own education; instead, we became the test subjects of this grand neoliberal experiment. Only a results-centered, quantity-driven logic stands behind the thinking that building a new university in order to kill it is considered a kind of innovation. 

On July 7, 1980, Nanyang University—the people’s university, the first Chinese-language university outside of China—was closed and merged into the new NUS. Is it appropriate to think of us, those affected by the closure of Yale-NUS and USP, as inheritors of a now well-established tradition of shutting down troublesome institutions and programs, as universities time and again prove that their only loyalty is to profitability, employability, and homogenizing the higher education landscape for easier management and an optimized workforce? 

Welcome to the Neoliberal Arts then, which is—I surmise—the only thing that the “New” in New College will ever stand for. 

Shawn Hoo is an alumnus from Yale-NUS Class of 2020.

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

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