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A Liberal Education Should Interrogate Wealth and Power, Not Just Serve Them

All PostsOpinionA Liberal Education Should Interrogate Wealth and Power, Not Just Serve Them

story | Jim Sleeper, Guest Writer

photo | StockSnap.io


Long before Yale trustees ever thought of co-founding a liberal arts college with NUS, some of them had been coming to Singapore for years as investors, not educators. As a world-capitalist entrepot that’s a tightly run and relatively safe port in the storms of global capitalist exploit, Singapore welcomed the Yale investors as advisors and officers of its sovereign wealth funds the Government Investment Corporation, chaired by the prime minister, and Temasek Holdings, which at one point even designated Yale trustee, Charles Goodyear IV, as its CEO in 2009.

It was natural for such leaders to consider Yale-NUS College an outgrowth of their collaboration in market and political terms. Of course, they also knew that a liberal arts college is more than a career training and networking center or a cultural finishing school for future global investors and managers. Its deeper purpose is to strengthen young citizens’ freedoms of inquiry and expression by equipping them to question and sometimes challenge their own societies’ arrangements and premises. Arguably, that strengthens societies and humanity’s prospects in the long run.

But how strongly committed to that deeper purpose were Singapore’s political leaders and Yale’s investors? When some of us on Yale’s faculty doubted that commitment, some Singaporeans accused us of practicing what Daryl Yang ‘18 and Paul Jerusalem ‘19, Yale-NUS undergraduates who wrote in The Octant last October, called “moral neoliberal imperialism” and trying to impose Yale’s and America’s values on Singapore. Similar charges of cultural imperialism and elitism have been lodged against other Anglo-American universities that have entered into (and, quite often, withdrawn from) joint ventures with institutional counterparts in Singapore and other host countries.

Let me explain why some of these charges are understandable, but why others underestimate the degree of support and protection that a liberal education needs but isn’t getting in either Singapore or in the United States, for different reasons in each country.

Regarding Cultural Imperialism

First, let me emphasize that most of us who’ve criticized Yale’s joint venture with Singapore are not preoccupied with condemning the country, although we do have serious criticisms that I’ll get to in a minute. Nor do we disparage Yale-NUS students or faculty. We’re worried mainly about the “corporatization” of universities and civil societies in both countries, but especially at Yale in New Haven, prompting crises in American education and politics that may pose worrisome challenges for both countries and for liberal education itself.

If anything, I’ve long believed, American society and jurisprudence are too “free,” but mainly in that they’ve unleashed a free-for-all of commercially driven “speech” that’s degenerating into a free-for-none whose shouting benefits only those who invest in it. That’s not good for public order, or a democracy that depends on the constructive dialogue that a liberal education tries to encourage — dialogue that is not just for an elite but for a whole civil society.

The sheer scale of American crisis is an obvious reason for Singaporeans to accuse Yale of cultural imperialism: both Yale and the United States are huge, expansive, and sometimes recklessly presumptuous. Singapore is tiny, and in my view governed too tightly and defensively for its good, although Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong likens his city-state, rightly enough, to a small boat breasting powerful cross-currents. Among those currents, China looms much larger in East Asia than the U.S. does. As China rises, Singapore’s decision to collaborate with Yale and the United States could begin to feel like a dependency, so whenever Americans assert liberal values, however justifiably, they may prompt prickly, defensive fears of unwarranted influence and even of the ghosts of colonialism.

A second reason for charging Yale with cultural imperialism is that Yale itself has in fact has been culturally and economically imperialist or missionary for hundreds of years, nowhere more so than in Asia. Henry Luce, Yale Class of 1920, founder of Time magazine and of a 20th century publishing empire including Fortune magazine, was born in China to Yale Christian missionaries who were among thousands of others eager to “evangelize the world in a generation,” as their slogan put it. So was John Hersey, Yale Class of 1936, author of the book Hiroshima. Some Yale missionaries even went to Singapore.

Yale College itself was founded as a missionary venture in 1701 by Puritans eager to purify their Christianity against mercenary temptations. But they had to seek the college’s material support – and therefore to take its name – from Elihu Yale, a British governor in India for one of the world’s first multi-national corporations, the British East India Company. As if that weren’t ironic enough, the East India Company acquired the island of “Singapura” for the British Crown in 1812. I don’t mean to suggest that Yale colonized Singapore, but within thirty years its Christian missionaries had arrived there, along with Anglo-American capitalism.

Now, though, two hundred years later, Singapore may have acquired Yale, not the other way ‘round. Ironically, that may be the third reason for some Singaporeans’ to charge that Yale practices cultural imperialism: Why? Because the very names and imprimaturs of Yale, Harvard, and other elite Anglo American universities hold obsessive fascination for many in Asia’s burgeoning middle classes, many of whose members grasp at the iconic American trappings. But that’s quite rightly an affront to some Asians’ pride if it suggests to them that the old Anglo-American colonialism still sets standards for newly vigorous Asian societies.

Yale and Singapore: When A Convergence is Too Smooth

Singapore’s leaders have wanted Yale’s name and imprimatur partly to forestall a brain-drain. They also want to make Singapore a center for what its former ambassador to the U.S. called “the higher education industry,” whose graduates will become the worldly investors and corporate managers who can entertain business clients at New York’s elegant Yale Club when they visit the U.S.

If that proves to be the overriding accomplishment of this joint venture, it may prove costly in terms that economists and markets don’t measure. The more that liberal education is conscripted to accelerate riptides of casino-like financing, predatory lending, and degrading consumer marketing, the more empty and destructive civil society and politics become, and the more that Singapore’s and other governments may try to control the social decay with increasingly authoritarian measures that hobble culture and politics.

Liberal education is itself a small boat navigating the powerful tides I’ve mentioned on a big but risky mission to introduce young adults to what the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “The Great Conversation” across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the spirit.

The Yale-NUS Common Curriculum does that by using varied cultures’ great writings. But a true liberal education should also equip participants in its Great Conversation to interrogate the powers of their time – not to be interrogated by them or to serve them. If Singapore keeps liberal education “in a bubble,” it will shrink liberal education’s mission: Johns Hopkins University, Australia’s University of New South Wales, and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts have pulled their programs out of Singapore. Faculty at California’s distinguished Claremont Colleges rebuffed Singapore’s overtures to establish an undergraduate liberal arts college there. Britain’s prestigious Warwick University cancelled its own plans for such a college there after its faculty studied its prospects.

Yale-NUS claims to guarantee “the free expression of ideas in all forms a central tenet of liberal arts education. There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated…. This statement is not limited to the classroom. It extends to the dining hall and student suites and the common rooms. It also extends to many forms of expression, including debate, speech, dance, and theatre.”

But will those guarantees include protecting an essay in The Octant, whose online version can be read off-campus? They will have done so if you’re reading this now online as I wrote it. But in 2012, when I wrote a column about Singapore’s long military and strategic intimacy with Israel, an army of Singaporean trolls unleashed thousands of nasty comments (since removed) and ravaged my Wikipedia page.

Where can we assume that that “army” came from? At that time, Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore an abysmal 135 out of 179 countries in freedom of the press in 2011. By 2013, Singapore’s rank had dropped to 149;; in 2015 to 151, in 2016, to 154. From 2011 to 2013, as I was writing columns such as this criticizing Singapore’s meticulously “legal” maneuvers to cripple dissent, some of the columns were re-posted on Singapore websites and blogs until the government proved my point by requiring that websites post expensive bonds that can be demanded by authorities if the published material violates their standards.  

What standards? Even university faculty who speak out have been convicted by Singapore’s judiciary, bankrupted when they couldn’t pay the exorbitant fines, and, in some cases, effectively exiled. Jothie Rajah’s book Authoritarian Rule of Law, mentioned and linked here, describes such methods. Human Rights Watch calls Singapore “a textbook example of a repressive state.” The Economist magazine which is anything but an anti-capitalist or human-rights organization publishes a rigorous Democracy Index that ranks that Singapore down with Liberia, Palestine, and Haiti on its measures of political freedom.

As if that weren’t enough, we now have the official grilling of historian PJ Thum and civil society activists, preparatory to passing a law against “fake news.”  The American Association of University Professors warned Singaporeans about what happens to liberal education under such circumstances when it issued a public letter to the Yale community and to 500,000 American professors in 2012, expressing “growing concern about the character and impact of the university’s collaboration with the Singaporean government… In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer.”  

The worst consequence of widely reported instances of government censorship is widespread self-censorship by scholars, journalists, and ordinary citizens. “Fear leaves no fingerprints,” writes William Dobson in The Dictator’s Learning Curve, which shows that surveillance and seduction are as effective as truncheons and prison cells at silencing countless citizens who never experience them directly.

A true liberal education equips you to be strong and effective in resisting such subtle constraints. Maybe it equipped Subhas Nair, recent Yale-NUS graduate from the Class of 2017, to produce a rap album with the cleverly subversive title, “This Is Not a Public Assembly.” We’ll see how far it gets.

America, by contrast, could use more self-restraint, not less, in the kinds of speech and other forms of expression that true freedom requires. No wonder that some American visitors almost welcome Singapore’s fearsome fingerprints as they’re welcomed into the protected bubble of a carefully manicured campus. If some of us do notice and criticize, that’s not “cultural imperialism.” It’s our warning about Singapore’s side of the two-sided threat to the Great Conversation, which requires self-restraint but not authoritarian coercion and fear.   


Professor Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He teaches a course there called “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy”.

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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