BLOCH: Why I like Yale-NUS

The faculty debate about Yale-NUS has focused on Singapore government policy towards homosexuality and free political expression, which everyone knows is not the same as in the United States. Objection to our presence abroad brings to the fore just how exceptional American policies are and just how exceptional the debate about liberal values is within an institution of higher learning like Yale.

Most European countries are tolerant in the realms of sexuality and human rights. But university education throughout Europe is supported solely by the state, and you can bet your last euro that it serves nationalist aims. No place measures up to North America when it comes to fostering programs like women’s, gender & sexuality studies or the LGBT Cooperative — along with other identity-defined disciplines — as an integral part of college life.

So, I ask: Just what does anyone think the government of Singapore was thinking when it invited Yale to establish within its borders a liberal arts college with policies and practices which it knows to be different from its own? On one account, it looks like the invitation for Yale to enter Singapore is itself a sign of governmental openness — or some significant part of governmental openness — to change. As students of politics know, these things are never simple or one-sided and sometimes come more easily from without than from within. It is only with the support of Yale on the ground that the proponents for the change that all of us would like to see might be encouraged and prevail.

Since there is virtually no country that can match the standard we set for the rest of the world when it comes to academic freedom and human rights, it is a nonstarter to demand that a government change its policy to match our own before Yale commits to working with it. Not to make that commitment at this point is a sign of complicity with the most conservative elements of the Singapore regime, a betrayal of the NUS faculty who have expressed the will to be more like their North American colleagues and a defeat for progress via educational means.

But I like Yale-NUS for other reasons. The Yale experiment offers the chance to build a university without the hobbling disciplinary limits of our conventional departments. I love my department, as I love all 17 of the departments and programs within the Division of the Humanities. But the storage of knowledge in silos that were established for the most part in the late 19th or early 20th century is an impediment to the generation of new ideas among faculty colleagues and intellectual excitement among undergraduates.

The proof is that the humanities major, which offers broad courses and allows students to work significantly in more than one discipline at a time, is one of the fastest-growing majors on Yale’s campus. On this score, Yale-NUS will be way ahead of Yale-US, though the government of Singapore has some catching up to do on other fronts.

As a nexus between India, China and the West, Singapore’s location favors an important conceptual realignment of the humanities that will be a long time coming to the home campus in New Haven — that is, a synthesis of the ways that ideas and creative works of East and West intersect historically as well as conceptually with each other. Emphasis on what is common to the textual, visual and musical cultures of the world lies at the root core of the new curriculum, which will likely someday have an effect on the courses in our own Blue Book.

I look to Yale-NUS if not to solve then at least to prime the pump of recovery in the job market for humanities Ph.D.s. Not only will there be jobs in Singapore for those in an incredibly tight job market, but those who teach at Yale-NUS will be broadly trained and better adapted to teach in the globalized university of the future. Should they want to return to the U.S., they will enjoy a distinct advantage in their ability to offer the kind of big-issue, personally meaningful, culturally comprehensive courses that undergraduates clearly want and that are beyond the ken of many Ph.D.s trained in our traditional single-discipline departments.

For these and other reasons, Yale should take the lead and give it a go. The potential upside is great, the risk, low. This is not a perfect world, but Yale’s engagement in Singapore is a way of making it better. And if there is an unforeseen disaster, we can, having done the right thing from the start, always pull out. In the meantime, Yale-NUS offers an exciting means of rethinking the humanities and a way for the power of liberal studies to venture beyond the walls of ivy.

R. Howard Bloch is Sterling Professor of French and chair of the Humanities Program.


  • The Anti-Yale

    Silos? A waste of building material.

    Yes, let’s just throw the post-Enlightenment categories into those great big plastic roll-up bags we see littering the hay fields.

    Or better still let’s just bulldoze knowledge into a great big grimy goulash and throw a tarp over it emblazoned with the Yale logos.

    Why even bother going to Singapore? Just hookup a feeding tube to Wikipedia.


    • theantiantiyale

      PK, what DO you endorse? I am not sure I have ever seen you support something.

  • JimSleeper

    Even if Prof. Bloch is right that Singapore’s government considers its society ready for a seed of liberal education to be sown by Yale, is Yale ready to sow that seed?

    Describing the interdisciplinarity of Yale-NUS’ projected humanities major, Bloch writes, “On this score, Yale-NUS will be way ahead of Yale-US.” Doesn’t that suggest that Yale has some work to do in New Haven? Or is it intended that the Singapore tail will wag the New Haven dog? Would that be the right way to proceed?

    “Just what does anyone think the government of Singapore was thinking,” asks Prof. Bloch, “when it invited Yale to establish within its borders a liberal arts college with practices it knows to be different from its own?”

    I ,for one, think that Singapore’s government – whose investment corporation turns out to have included only three non-Singaporean members and investment officers, all of whom also happen to have been members of the Yale Corporation – was thinking that it would pay for certain services rendered by Yale, hoping only to improve its country’s image and competitiveness, just as too many who teach and study at Yale intend only to do for themselves. That isn’t what liberal education is for, however, and the struggle to balance wealth-making with humanist truth-seeking is a daunting project, even in the U.S. Will we really advance it by going to Singapore? Or will be corrupt it?

    Prof. Bloch wants us to imagine a regime that has decided to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in support of that project, in order to open itself up to “practices which it knows to be different from its own.” But many of us who share his interest in “a synthesis of ways that ideas and creative works of East and West intersect historically as well as conceptually” still wonder what stimulated Yale’s decision to pursue that project in this particular time and place. We also wonder how, exactly, Yale’s decision was made.

    No persuasive answer to either question has yet been forthcoming, and this column doesn’t provide it. So I’ve tried to pose the questions here:

  • carp800

    As Prof. Bloch knows from his area of expertise, the debate about whether Yale should get involved with the questionable Singaporean regime recapitulates that between Raphael Hythloday and Thomas More in More’s Utopia. Hythloday argues that the virtuous man should eschew politics because “there is no room for philosophy in the courts of princes,” while the More character says he should temporize so that “if you are not able to make [political decisions] go well” at least “they may be as little ill as possible.” The real More took the fictional More’s advice and became Henry VIII’s heretic-burner-in-chief. Before we start “rethinking the humanities,” in other words, perhaps we should recall the all-too-human consequences that follow upon moral compromise.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I have repeatedly supported the NUS move as a clever machiavellian “infiltrate and subvert” tactic, the free world undermining the imprisoned world.

    But—-I don’t advocate throwing the Enlightenment out with the typewriter simply because we have a digital technology.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80, and blah blah

    PS: I also support posting with birth-certifcate-names, not cowardly cartoon camouflages..

  • danspielman

    If it is important for Yale to open a campus in another country, then we should have put serious thought and effort into choosing that country. If we did, I doubt “Singapore” would have been our answer.

    The lack of care in our choice of where to locate our new campus leads many to doubt the purity of the motives of the Yale Corporation.

    Daniel Spielman

    Prof. of Computer Science and Applied Math

  • The Anti-Yale

    How refreshing to see a human being’s name. Character.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. Div. ’80, etc.