story | Wisha Jamal, Contributing Reporter
photo | Peh Yi Lin, Visuals Editor
Do you feel alone in a crowd? Don’t know how to join the conversation? Can’t keep up with Orientation? Are you afraid to voice your opinion? Feel like you’re not a part of the community? Probably won’t be a future leader?
You’re not the only one.
If you ever go through the admissions page on the Yale-NUS College website, you will encounter the words, “Students are considered based on many factors that may indicate success at Yale-NUS College.” You’ll then wonder: what makes one a successful Yale-NUS student?
According to Yale-NUS, a “diverse and dynamic” class consists of students who are not only intellectually curious, but “adventurous”. Someone they can teach to “succeed as students today” and become “leaders tomorrow”.
This search for adventurous students and tomorrow’s leaders is a worthy pursuit for sure, but is it a fair one? Perhaps not.
The discomfort is obvious on Erika Loh’s ’22 face as she answers my questions. It’s not easy describing how she feels as a self-identified socially anxious extrovert. We talk about Orientation this year. She tells me there was a point where she thought to herself, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.’
She is referring to the feeling of everything being too much and too fast that underpins Orientation; a feeling that perhaps is not unique to Yale-NUS but a product of the liberal arts education system, as campuses like the University of Chicago and Dartmouth College also turn to towards ‘active learning classrooms’ and ‘foregoing passivity in favor of participation’.
Terence Chong’s ’22 hesitation also reflects this discomfort. Sitting in the fading daylight on the chairs around Agora, he says he doesn’t know if he should be honest about his individualistic values and right-leaning political opinions because they aren’t very popular in a left-leaning campus like Yale-NUS.
Loh and Chong have very different concerns. For Loh, the issue is that Yale-NUS overlooks the needs of her personality type. With the emphasis on active participation, student-led work and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, the Common Curriculum feels more like hindrance than help to her.
On the other hand, Chong is suspicious of the culture of political correctness and self-censorship on campus which pushes certain opinions out of sight and out of mind. He says, “We can never solve issues unless we’re allowed to discuss them openly. I, for one, don’t believe in equality of outcome but I don’t think I can say that openly in this liberal bubble because when it comes to topics like diversity or social justice, people just don’t accept alternative opinions to mainstream liberal ones.” To his knowledge, no club on campus is representative of his views. Another group he believes is alienated, despite having some official representation, is the Christian community on campus, which holds more traditional views.
Chong believes that these people are in the minority and starting a right-leaning club would invite unwanted attention. His concerns are not unfounded. In some college campuses around the world, students and faculty alike have been isolated and branded pariahs for challenging the dominant liberal culture. This is demonstrated clearly by Erika Christakis’ piece in the Washington Post in which she recounts the ferocious backlash to an invitation to debate the merits of a policy regarding cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes.
These feelings of alienation are not uncommon in other colleges — especially those in the West — and it’s what ties together the concerns of everyone I interviewed in the past week. In fact, it’s an obvious export of the US liberal arts college culture; a legacy of Yale University. Edward Schlosser’s opinion piece published in Vox states that even faculty often feel they are not given an opportunity “to mount a defense” for themselves.
This culture of choosing the liberal over the libertarian, the confident over the reserved, the leader over the follower is self-perpetuating. “Liberal Arts advertises itself in a certain way to a certain type of student who is outgoing, can adapt easily and usually fairly liberal. This student makes up the majority demographic of the applicant pool, and thus, the school population,” observes Yoon Thiri ’22.
Thiri is a self-identified introvert who has lived in Singapore for most of her life, likes time to herself and is initially reserved when meeting new people. Despite this, she argues that, “The college’s [emphasis] on certain traits isn’t a bad thing. Singaporeans go to Yale-NUS because it’s different from other [local] universities. It’s more adventurous and they come here to be pushed out of their comfort zones.”
What, however, is wrong with choosing one type of student over others? After all, as Malcolm Gladwell states, we are a “luxury brand” with an image to maintain. It’s almost impossible to get rid of the mainstream notion of a liberal arts student because of how deeply ingrained it is in college cultures around the world — even in Yale-NUS.
Yet it’s high time we recognize that there is no “Liberal Arts” student. We are not all leaders, or liberal, or outgoing. Not everyone is an activist or wants to open a startup. Some just want to pass through college quietly, some need time and help to adjust, and others don’t hold the most popular opinions. And to believe otherwise means you create a toxic college culture — one that silences those whose words we don’t agree with, pushes to the edges those who cannot claw their way to center stage, and leaves behind every student who doesn’t fit the mold.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org