I wonder how much of an exaggeration it would be to say that precisely what Yale teaches us doesn’t matter, that the content of our education is a somewhat irrelevant measure of how well we are educated. Grade point averages suggest it’s not all that far-fetched an idea. Only the most partisan pro-humanities people among us — and, full disclosure, I might be one of them — would argue that a 3.7 in the English major demands the same volume of blood and tears as a 3.7 in the chemistry major.
What are we left with, then, to evaluate what our liberal arts education is giving us? A line I like and have heard a lot from students, faculty and administrators, goes something like this: At Yale, we learn to think in new ways. Yale helps us expand our minds.
What a lovely thought! And what an important distinction. Thoughts are entirely different beasts from ways of thinking. Thoughts are legion; there are at least as many thoughts as blogs and search results and Facebook walls. Ways of thinking are more rarified, more dynamic. They energize the mind, unlike thoughts, which only fill it up and make it sluggish.
Energized minds cover ever-widening intellectual terrain with agility, passion and necessary irreverence. Energized minds cross and violate boundaries and thus require ever wider, ever-weirder avenues for expression.
And these exciting ways of thinking, which some at Yale hope to deliver like a product to Singapore, can indeed be found in discipline-driven departments — which French professor R. Howard Bloch characterized as outmoded “silos” — here at Yale already. We assume wrongly that even the tamest syllabus in the most canon-friendly literature departments doesn’t bring together texts whose friction with other texts on that same syllabus isn’t capable of starting a fire in the brain.
A brief, illustrative digression: Anthropomorphic tomatoes juxtaposed with dramatized terrorists subvert nothing about our University’s culture. In fact, they only reinforce and reflect our school’s exciting, promiscuous core mission. The improbable connections, the realized links between far-flung aspects of human life or culture or politics — in a word, discovery — these are the nexus of the liberal arts. That nexus requires us always to expand the range of ways we think about ourselves and our world. Yale’s academic mission has something profound to do with the active enlargement and broadening of free thought and expression.
For that reason, Yale-NUS, in crossing one national boundary, makes Yale complicit in the rigid enforcement of others. If Yale-NUS forces Yale to cooperate with an autocratic state that actively seeks to delimit and constrain free expression, from the press to the bedroom, then Yale-NUS represents Yale in name only. This is not to say that Yale-NUS wouldn’t maybe do some good for the openness of Singaporean political or academic culture. But we should care more about what Yale-NUS would say about the Yale in New Haven.
Granted, all states, to varying degrees, constrain what people do, say and think, from France to Myanmar. Without doubt, the United States is no bastion of tolerance and cannot be said to promote free expression as fully as it could and should.
But every inch of space that Yale University wrenches from society for the open discussion and consideration of radical, or radically conservative, or — why not? — radically harlequin ways of thinking is so precious that this space becomes a vital part of what I’ll go out on a limb and call our school’s soul. We cannot export Yale University to a state like Singapore without Yale University becoming just a brand name. We cannot attempt to transplant the liberal arts into Singapore by yoking Yale with the National University of Singapore without, to a degree, tokenizing what a liberal arts education, at its best, helps us do.
Members of Yale’s administration are too comfortable treating Yale and the education it offers as, respectively, a business and a product.
Ryan Pollock is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.