What have we built?
Daniel Soo || Guest Columnist
Photo used with permission from Yale-NUS Singaporientation 2014
In 1912, Emile Durkheim wrote about the concept of “collective effervescence” to describe the state of communion of thought, emotion or action. A century and a year later, a Yale professor visited Yale-NUS College and described our community with those very words—collective effervescence. President Lewis thought that apt and two speeches on1 and it seems that Durkheim’s words have since percolated into the cultural vocabulary of our institution.
That Yale Professor did something remarkable that day. He looked at our nascent amorphous community and tried to name something that was shared among us. Quoting Durkheim’s words was an attempt to ground a collection of emotions, behaviours and experiences to a discrete concept. “Collective effervescence” thus became a visible and transmittable placeholder of meaning, something we could grab at and connect our experiences to. With the recognition of this shared cultural trait, we nudged just a little closer towards defining ourselves as a community and institution.
Culture is inevitable; it forms regardless of intentionality. Culture is also most often the uncoordinated result of happenstance and the organic alignment of people, systems and shared experiences. Perhaps it is culture’s propensity for emergent self-organisation that makes it so easy for an institution to take culture for granted. Culture is powerful, yet we often don’t pay enough attention to it – we hold each others hands and stumble on until someone thinks to ask, “Wait…just how did we get here?” The scary thing is that sometimes we don’t even know where here is.
We often think of ourselves as culture creators on a blank slate that is Yale-NUS. What we realise less often is how identifying culture is as important and powerful as the act of creation itself. Just as how our physical campus has shot up, we have mixed our personalities, layed our values, and welded our aspirations together. But what exactly have we built? We need to assess these foundations and pillars of culture together if we are to define ourselves.
Culture often seems nebulous, and therefore knowing exactly what to observe is helpful in making sense of it. An interesting way to demystify cultural phenomena is to look for memes—a term derived by Richard Dawkins from the Greek word ‘mimema’, meaning ‘something imitated’. Memes are “units of cultural transmission”2 which spread from person to person through the process of imitation. Memes typically include ideas, behaviours, norms and mindsets, and possible examples of Yale-NUS memes can include an intellectual focus on East and West, a propensity for spontaneous dancing, or even making bad puns on Facebook. Anything imitable is a meme, and therefore we have to be ready to recognise ‘negative’ memes as well. Dawkins also saw cultural memes as similar to genes in how they self-replicate, pass themselves on, and compete and evolve in response to natural selection. This lens instructs us to look for the most virally imitated (and imitable) memes in the current Yale-NUS environment versus those less so. It is these successful memes that are most likely to define our culture more dominantly and for longer.
Merely observing these memes, however, is insufficient; sharing and discussing them is crucial in recognising our own culture as a community. The notion of ‘collective effervescence’ was propagated because it was so publicly expressed by President Lewis. Similarly, any observation of memes has to be shared for others to agree, disagree, or simply see things from a different perspective. From there, open and engaged dialogue will naturally lead to bigger questions of explaining and seeing patterns within memes and connecting them to a larger cultural consciousness. It is this process that will allow us to cooperatively recognise, name, and own our evolving culture as a community. Only by knowing where we are can we then assess if we are where we want to be – and if not, how we can get there.
Yale-NUS is an exciting experiment in collaborative construction. We—the students, the faculty, leadership and administration— have all contributed to make this school what it is now, and it’s time we take stock of what this means. As we mature as a school and community, let us remember that a beautiful building needs not just builders—but surveyors and architects as well.
1 First Year Assembly Address 2014: Collective Effervescence by President Pericles Lewis. http://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/ newsroom/first-year-assembly-2014/
2 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989. Print.