BAILYN, DAVIS AND LEWIS: Rethinking liberal arts education

In 2009, two of us (Charles Bailyn and Deborah Davis) visited Singapore with a Yale delegation to join a conversation about creating a liberal arts education that would be unlike what exists at Yale or elsewhere. After that initial trip, three Yale faculty committees met biweekly to imagine what such a curriculum would include. There were many lively debates, and not a little disagreement, over content, sequencing and format of the curriculum. During 2010, the potential college was the subject of much discussion at two town hall faculty meetings and in numerous consultative sessions with Yale faculty members.

In March 2011, Yale and the National University of Singapore agreed to open Yale-NUS College, a new liberal arts college in Singapore, in August 2013. Since then, the three of us, with 15 faculty colleagues from a wide range of disciplines at Yale and NUS, have refined the broad outlines of a curriculum for the college and begun the search for the initial faculty. We have met frequently and consulted widely. Now that our efforts are about to bear fruit, we are eager to share with the Yale community some of our excitement about this new college.

Yale-NUS College aims to provide a global and diverse education in the liberal arts tradition — one that has been re-conceptualized for the 21st century. From the beginning, no one wanted to export a copy of the Yale curriculum to Singapore, nor merely give a brand name to just one more international venture. Nor did Yale plan to establish a branch campus. Rather, the challenge and the opportunity was to create something entirely new, a true collaboration.

An initial curriculum committee at Yale, chaired by Haun Saussy, professor of comparative literature, and Anthony Kronman, former dean of the Yale Law School, and a similar committee at NUS, worked during 2009-’10 and bequeathed to us some key principles.

All or most courses will be taught in small, discussion-based seminars designed to encourage creativity and critical thought.

All students will share a substantial curricular experience in the first two years, spanning the major divisions of the humanities, sciences and social sciences.

Students will have early exposure to research.

The curriculum will encourage exploration across traditional disciplinary boundaries and will take advantage of the opportunities afforded by its location in Southeast Asia.

The curriculum will be both broad and deep.

The college will aim to create a robust intellectual community around residential life.

There may be some debate about the desirability of a common curriculum in which students take many of the same courses together in the early years, but we believe that for a small and new institution with a particularly diverse group of students and faculty, such an approach will provide a crucial sense of shared intellectual endeavor.

We asked ourselves: “What does the successful person in the 21st century need to learn?” Not just what must she know — the “furniture of the mind,” in the language of Yale’s curriculum report of 1828 — but also what habits of mind and modes of analysis must she develop — the “discipline of the mind” that was equally emphasized by the 1828 report.

We explicitly questioned existing core curricula, mostly designed half a century ago or more. We want a curriculum that, while preserving the benefits of traditional liberal arts education, exposes all students to the experiences of peoples outside Europe and North America and draws on much of the scholarship of the past half-century — scholarship that has paid attention to such issues as gender and sexuality, imperialism and post-colonialism and sustainability and the environment.

We are committed to incorporating the full range of disciplines in the arts and sciences, including those that are less text-based than the traditional core curricula. Finally, the new college will require faculty to rethink their pedagogical assumptions and to consider such innovations as integrated and interactive approaches to science; writing across the curriculum; computation, computer simulations and interpretation of large data sets; and the honing of quantitative, communication and other skills.

In late August, we invited 40 experienced professors from liberal arts colleges around the country to Yale to engage with our initial ideas about the curriculum as well as other aspects of the new college. Their excitement at the potential for innovation was palpable. They offered new insights, which were incorporated into our plans, and some may even join the Yale-NUS faculty. We then followed up in October with a meeting of 50 interested members of Yale’s own faculty who offered many valuable recommendations and suggestions for improvement. Since December, we have held four additional workshops for potential faculty at the new college, where we refined our sense of the challenges and potential in the new curriculum even further.

As a result of these conversations, we made some major changes, and the plans continue to evolve. The curriculum under consideration for the college is now distinctive and wide-ranging and has proved extremely attractive to potential faculty and students. Already, students from around Asia and across the world have expressed great interest in Yale-NUS College. Thousands have come to our information events, and we expect a healthy group of applications for the College.

At Yale-NUS College, all students will take courses together in their first two years on a range of subjects across the humanities, the arts, the social sciences and the natural and computational sciences. These courses will incorporate a variety of modes of analysis: visual and aural, written and oral, interpretive and argumentative, quantitative and qualitative, inductive and deductive, data-driven and model-driven. Assignments will be coordinated across the curriculum so that students have a manageable schedule and progress in fundamental skills such as writing, speaking and reasoning over the course of their first two years. An increasing fraction of the curriculum will be open each semester for students to explore a diversity of electives and pre-requisites for the majors, which will be interdisciplinary in nature and will each culminate in a year-long capstone project. All students will spend one semester or summer, or even a year, working or studying outside Singapore.

While academic conferences reflecting on educational issues and reforms are common, the set of discussions led by Yale and NUS since 2009 has been an unusually sustained and collaborative international conversation about the liberal arts. The fact that we have a concrete goal before our eyes gives the discussions extra urgency and focus. In the past decade, there has been a great deal of interest in liberal arts education throughout the world. In countries like Singapore, whose university system is built on the British system of early specialization, there is currently tremendous excitement about creating broad-based curricula like that proposed for Yale-NUS. This comprehensive rethinking of the curriculum is distinctive and could serve as a model for others.

Faculty from around the world have expressed considerable enthusiasm about the curriculum and about the broader prospect of a new residential liberal arts college in Singapore. We have received over 2,000 applications for faculty positions and have already interviewed approximately 200 in order to identify the best faculty for the new college. Those that we hire will spend next year translating the broad outlines into real courses. We are hopeful that as some Yale faculty participate in the development of these courses, they will find ways to bring some of the lessons learned at Yale-NUS back to Yale College itself, to join the exciting conversations recently emerging here about innovations in our own liberal arts curriculum.

Visits to Singapore by a dozen Yale colleagues in the last two years have given us the opportunity to learn first-hand about the broad range of intellectual pursuits of scholars in Singapore, and we expect that the research and teaching of Yale-NUS College faculty will reflect the academic diversity and freedom of discussion that both Yale and NUS will create in the new college. We recognize that Singapore has very different laws and traditions from our own. We respect our colleagues who do not share our vision, but we are among those who believe that Yale needs to engage in the world.

Yale has been a leader in American liberal arts education for three centuries. We believe that Yale-NUS College will contribute to that tradition of leadership and will extend Yale’s liberal arts ideals in the 21st century. At a time when many American universities seem to be turning away from the liberal arts, Yale is reasserting their value and enduring importance.

Charles Bailyn is A. Bartlett Giamatti professor of astronomy and physics at Yale and inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College. Deborah Davis is professor of sociology at Yale and chair of the Social Sciences Search Committee for Yale-NUS. Pericles Lewis is professor of English and comparative literature at Yale and chair of the Humanities Search Committee for Yale-NUS.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Yale-NUS College aims to provide a global and diverse education in the liberal arts tradition — one that has been re-conceptualized for the 21st century”

    Fee,fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of the NEASSC recertification committee: Glib, soul-deadening jargon, packaged for modern, mindless consumers.

    UGH!

    PK

    M. Div. ’80, and blah

  • The Anti-Yale

    *”We explicitly questioned existing core curricula, mostly designed half a century ago or more. We want a curriculum that, while preserving the benefits of traditional liberal arts education, exposes all students to the experiences of peoples outside Europe and North America and draws on much of the scholarship of the past half-century — scholarship that has paid attention to such issues as gender and sexuality, imperialism and post-colonialism and sustainability and the environment.”*

    Now you’re cookin’ with gas.

    PK

  • pericles

    “We have already interviewed approximately 20″ should read “we have already interviewed approximately 200.”

  • River_Tam

    notable is the word that does not appear in this op-ed: “government”.

  • ldffly

    Another reason why I’m glad I’m not in college these days and why, if I were able to go back, I might not matriculate. What drivel. And coming from Yale. Let us pray.

  • DebbieDowner

    Job security is a hell of a drug.