I write as an academic firmly committed to a future for the liberal arts in Singapore. I am part of a team from New Haven and Singapore planning a curriculum and recruiting faculty for Yale-NUS. We share the conviction that a liberal arts education offers a vital alternative to systems of education centered on early and exclusive specialization. It has the potential to enrich educational options in rapidly modernizing countries such as Singapore.
Some in the U.S. have declared that an alliance between Yale and NUS compromises the ideals of the liberal arts model. On the contrary, not to take up this challenge would be the real dereliction. The liberal arts educational model can secure a fresh lease on life in Southeast Asia and show that there is virtue in hybridity and adaptability.
The notion that Singapore is a repressive society has cast a needless shadow over the venture. The matter of a list of banned books, when read out of context, can appear to support this notion.
Most nations have a history of banned books. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was briefly withdrawn from publication in 1881 by its Boston publisher because of explicit sexual content. In 1929, U.S. Customs banned Rousseau’s Confessions because it was injurious to public morality. These and many similar books are foundational to a humanities education.
There seem to be three reasons why books get banned. They contain material that can offend religious beliefs, promote racial discrimination or violate sexual mores. Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, was banned for a while in Canada in 1958. The Catholic Church abolished its Index of Prohibited Books as recently as 1966. The Merriam Webster Dictionary was banned in a California elementary school in 2010 for its definition of oral sex. Earlier this year, Arizona banned Shakespeare’s The Tempest and other books in an effort to limit resentment. I could go on and on.
Such instances indicate that all societies face the problem of whether to intervene and what to do when books offend ethnic sensitivities and religious beliefs or confront parents with questions such as “Would I like my daughter to read Lolita at age 14?” The problem is not unique to the U.S. or Singapore. And if a dictionary or Shakespeare can be banned, then how is one to separate that which is alleged to have reference value or literary merit from that which gives deep offence to some segment of society?
Such cases raise the question of whether the freedom to read promiscuously is a principle in danger of losing its efficacy if promoted without reference to social consequences. An education in the liberal arts can open a dialogue between a belief in the freedom of speech and belief in a state’s responsibility to protect its citizens. Engaging in such dialogue is more constructive than turning one’s back on a society because it is alleged to be illiberal.
So yes, Singapore does have a list of banned books. It exemplifies a particular view of how a nation wishes to protect its citizens. Perceptions of what that might entail keep evolving. Meanwhile, the spirit of liberalism inherent to the idea of a liberal arts education can surely be prepared to recognize and respect difference.
Moreover, the NUS library does represent some banned authors: A title by Marquis de Sade, for example, and two by Salman Rushdie are available for academic study, discussion and debate within the university. If there is a list, there is also room for discussing such books within an academic context.
Times are changing. A liberal arts education is part of that process. There is room for evolving models of education to change the nation’s perceptions of its own interests.
Milton wrote in Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” In the spirit of Milton, I might ask, what is the use of a liberal arts system that practices its virtues safely in the U.S., where it meets few challenges to its ideals?
Here, in Singapore, a nation which lacks this option, the idea of the liberal arts has an opportunity to educate young minds towards the ideal of a wiser humanism. More to the point, it has a chance to test itself. Why shrink from that challenge? Why not welcome it, instead, as the logical evolution of a role for the liberal arts in the 21st century?
Rajeev Patke is a professor of English language and literature at the National University of Singapore.