DARWALL: A liberal arts outpost

I serve on a faculty search committee for the new Yale-NUS College, so you might be tempted to discount my strong support for the venture. I began, however, as something of a skeptic, having recently come to Yale from a university that seemed, like many, to be increasingly distracted from its intellectual core by administrative initiatives.

What appealed to me about Yale was its unstinting commitment to liberal arts education, which gives real power to students and faculty — something I had experienced myself as an undergraduate here. In my opinion, no other major research university has anything like Yale’s devotion to the liberal arts, and no one does it better. From this perspective, Yale-NUS seemed a potential diversion.

I now believe that the reverse is true. A commitment to the liberal arts in today’s context provides the strongest argument in favor of the kind of venture that Yale-NUS College represents. We live in a world that is progressively more global but also more specialized. Technology makes possible and global markets dictate a kind of specialization, including across international boundaries, that was unimaginable even 20 years ago. Just think of the highly technical investment instruments and mechanisms in which international finance now traffics. Or the media- and cyber-balkanization that threaten the public political sphere in our own country (where people tend to get “news” from sources targeted to confirm their outlook).

Even within the academy, disciplines are increasingly collections of specialized subfields. And when interdisciplinarity is championed in opposition to departmental silos, it is often to employ diverse disciplinary lenses to achieve even greater focus — for example, using psychology, neurophysiology and philosophy to understand the nature of moral thought and feeling.

This increased capacity for specialization and focus has brought enormous benefits and insights, but it has also created new challenges, not least to our ability to view things more comprehensively, to think through the relations between more specialized knowledge and to ask in a critical and intelligent way: What is worth more intensive and specialized focus?

This, of course, is precisely what liberal arts education is all about. What Yale-NUS College hopes to nurture, in the words of NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan, is students who can both zoom in and zoom out to respond to the challenge of contemporary fragmentation.

But if the liberal arts are more relevant now than ever, they are also more embattled. Outside the U.S., university education usually consists in relatively specialized courses of study. And within the U.S., as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus document in a comparison of college majors between 1968 and 2008, the great majority of higher education has become pre-professional and vocational.

There is not much more Yale can do, other than by example, to further the liberal arts in our own country. But the opportunity to help create a really excellent liberal arts college in Asia is simply too good to pass up. Singapore’s excellent English-speaking educational institutions and student base and its history as a nexus of international trade offer the real prospect that Yale-NUS College will not only be an excellent institution in its own right but a model that can spread more broadly throughout the region that will likely see the most vigorous economic growth over next several decades.

This is not about extending the Yale brand. It is about fostering liberal arts education in a way that can make it more evidently vital and relevant in today’s world, at home no less than abroad. The idea is not to clone Yale in Singapore but to create something distinctive and comparative in an Asian context that can also enrich what we do in New Haven.

Some have raised concerns about human rights in Singapore in opposition to Yale’s involvement with Yale-NUS College. Yale-NUS should be unshakably committed to human rights, including freedom of speech, political freedoms and nondiscrimination, both on principle and because nothing is more central to the liberal arts than free thought and speech.

But just as our own failures in securing human rights are no reason not to foster liberal arts education here, so neither should we forgo being engaged in Singapore on similar grounds. To the contrary, helping the liberal arts take root in any society, our own or any other, is something we can do in support of human rights. And Singapore’s distinctive position in Asia gives Yale’s engagement there special promise.

Stephen Darwall ’68 is the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor of Philosophy. Contact him at stephen.darwall@yale.edu.

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