ZAKARIA: A global education for a global age

When I arrived at Yale from India in the fall of 1982, I felt distinctly unprepared. I had gone to a first rate, rigorous high school in Mumbai but, like many entering freshmen, I found that Yale operated at a different level. In one sense, though, I had an advantage. I had studied, in depth, a whole different civilization, and that background in Indian history, politics and culture gave me a broader context in which to place my Yale education. If Yale’s collaboration with the National University of Singapore succeeds, it will create on a much grander and more sophisticated scale a global education, a unique blend of East and West, which would be a vital asset in an increasingly connected world.

Criticisms of the Yale-NUS venture have centered on Singapore’s politics. This has obscured the fact that Yale-NUS is, above all, a pioneering educational experiment. Yale and NUS hope to create a new model for liberal arts education in Asia — with lessons for all of us all over the world.

Imagine a curriculum in which students read Aristotle but also Confucius, who was his contemporary, and ask whether culture or politics explains each thinker’s concerns. Imagine studying the rule of Charles V, the Hapsburg monarch, but then comparing him to Akbar, who ruled more people in India contemporaneously. Imagine an introduction to science that focused on solving problems rather than memorizing a body of material. The goal of the project is to create a liberal arts curriculum that spans Western, Asian and other traditions, that trains rigorously in science and social science and that will, as a result, provide inspiration for Asia’s burgeoning universities and societies.

A few years ago, the previous Minister of Education of Singapore, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who played a key role in the proposal to bring the liberal arts to his country, compared the Singaporean and American systems: “We both have meritocracies. Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. We know how to train people to take exams. You know how to use people’s talents to the fullest. Both are important, but there are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.” This is the impressive and appropriate source of the Singaporean government’s interest in liberal arts education. And Yale, more than any other institution I know, has “a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom.” That is the kind of culture that Yale hopes to see develop on the Singapore campus.

Many top Singaporean and other Asian students already come to the United States to get this kind of education, but ultimately, for critical pedagogy of this type to spread throughout Asia, there need to be functioning models of high-quality, engaged and creative teaching in Asia itself. That is what Yale-NUS College will provide — a model for conducting residential liberal arts education in Asia.

In talking with the faculty and administrators who have been involved in planning, I have been impressed with three facets of the College: the commitment to critical and creative thinking, the efforts to link residential life ambitiously to the educational missions of the college and the effort to reinvigorate traditional liberal arts curricula for the needs of contemporary students in Asia. By testing our ideas in a very different context, however, we will surely learn things that will be helpful in enhancing the educational experience at Yale.

Singapore is not a liberal democracy, though it is not so different from many Western democracies at earlier stages of development. It is not the caricature one sometimes reads about. Singapore is open to the world, embraces free markets and is routinely ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in the world.

It has also become more open over the last ten years. In fact, it is to enhance and enrich this process that Singapore has invited Yale to help create a liberal arts college. There will be differences in perspectives among students and faculty, foreigners and locals, but that makes it an ideal place to engage with issues of democracy and liberalism. I can imagine a fascinating seminar on democracy that would be much feistier in Singapore than at Yale precisely because there will be those who take positions quite critical of what is received wisdom in the West.

Singapore has a great deal to learn from America, and NUS has a great deal to learn from Yale. That’s why they have engaged in this collaboration with us. But it is a form of parochialism bordering on chauvinism — on the part of supposedly liberal and open-minded intellectuals — not to see that we too, in America and at Yale, can learn something from Singapore. In fact, together, Yale and the National University of Singapore can teach the world a new way to think about education in a globalized world.

Fareed Zakaria is a 1986 graduate of Berkeley College, the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, editor-at- large of Time magazine and a successor trustee of the Yale Corporation.


  • Tan

    There may be some benefits to Yale for getting into Singapore, but these aren’t very good examples of them.

    I’m all for merging Eastern and Western philosophy and history, I think it could do a great deal to broaden our thinking. But that’s not an argument for setting up a new college in Singapore. Why can’t that be achieved just by hiring more professors familiar with Eastern philosophy and history to teach at Yale, and including more Eastern readings in the syllabi here? That way we could incorporate it into our teaching here without having to wait for it to come to us from Yale-NUS.

    The comparison between America’s ‘talent meritocracy’ Singapore’s ‘exam meritocracy’ is even more fallacious. How on earth is an ‘exam meritocracy’ – people being trained to pass exams for the sake of passing exams – desirable? How on earth is incorporating elements of that into our pedagogy desirable? As an Asian from the region I’m familiar with the so called ‘exam meritocracy’ – it’s basically a culture where you learn how to memorize large chunks of information from textbooks without needing to actually understand it, regurgitate it onto answer scripts in exam halls, and then promptly forget all of it two weeks later. This seems to date back to the archaic civil service examinations in ancient China.

    That’s not something Americans are completely unfamiliar with either – there’s a degree of that in the American education system too. It’s just that here that kind of rote learning and uncritical regurgitation is rightly viewed as a low-grade form of education that we’re trying to discourage in our schools as far as possible.

    Honestly, the proponents of the Yale-NUS venture should be able to come up with something better. I expected a lot more from Fareed Zakaria.

    • yalengineer

      I think you’re completely missing the point of Fareed Zakaria. He isn’t claiming that Yale adopts an exam meritocracy. Rather, he is emphasizing the importance of Yale’s role in breaking barriers and shaking up the status quo.

  • honeybadger

    Well I feel much safer in Singapore than I ever do in New Haven. But that’s of course hardly the point. I’m not sure which I find more absurd: (a) that Yale profs have had all this time to object and are only deciding to do it now when it seems the train left the station some time ago, or (b) the stunning ivory tower abstract ignorance on display, and (c) whether any of those who have voiced an objection have ever spent any real time there. Singapore is a complex, rapidly changing place that barely existed 40 years ago, and it is surely not like the United States, but it is not Syria, either. There is a parliamentary democracy, with a prime minister and a generally elected president. And while you and I may not agree with it (I don’t), Singaporeans support the death penalty. So do a majority of Americans (again, just to be clear, I’m not in that majority). The U.S. pot calling the Singaporean kettle black aside, if the people had the will to abolish the death penalty the political and judicial mechanisms are in place to do so, just as they are here.

    As it’s been pointed out, for example, homosexuality is outlawed in Singapore. It is also, as it happens, tolerated, fairly openly. While hardly our version of a democratic ideal, it reflects a pragmatism: large portions of the population remain extremely conservative.

    Things are moving in the right direction, particularly as new generations with more universal notions of what constitute human rights and freedoms come of age. In conversations I’ve had with younger Singaporeans, both inside and outside the country, many grow up feeling stifled by their culture and the laws that have resulted from it. I’ve no doubt they’re aiming to change things, and the government, obviously, is in support of this progress.

    Look: It’s easy for leaders of a small country to keep it closed. But however you feel about the letter of the law in Singapore, its leaders are willing to gamble that fresh ideas are more helpful than dangerous, and that more freedom is better than less. So maybe Yale’s professors could help lead the way, rather than just set up intellectual road blocks based on sterotypes and out-of-date information. Yale might learn something, too.

  • ldffly

    Look out. They’re pulling out the big guns.

  • polosail51

    My saddening impression is it’s ultimately all about money, so far as the Yale Corporation is concerned.

  • Zan

    I’m slightly disturbed by the implication that the study of Aristotle is some kind of exclusive product only Western Universities can export, and vice versa for things like Confucianism and Asian universities.

  • IvySEAsian


    Singapore is not Mumbai.

    There is a fundamental difference in the elegant British-colonial-cum-Indian-nationalist education you received in secondary school before coming to Yale and the elegant British-colonial-cum-Singaporean education that island nation’s best and brightest receive at say, Raffles Institution. Mumbai has a history and culture of lively political debate and difference. But for all the increasing openness of a second and third generation Singapore, including for gay Singaporeans (since that’s clearly an issue here,) there is still a significant third rail that Yale should be recognizing in this but isn’t. Namely, there will be no criticism of the Lee family dynasty, or the PAP, or the Singaporean courts and police/surveillance mechanisms allowed. It would only happen with great difficulty.

    Yale won’t “lead the way” to Singaporeans on this. The current 2nd generation is obsessed with fostering creativity, but a quick trip down to much freer Indonesia shows that they have a long way to go on that score. Singapore is just too fundamentally rigid, though for political and not cultural reasons. In Singapore in the early 80s, as I got ready to go to Princeton the same summer you got ready to go to Yale, the big government campaign was “Let’s All Have Spontaneous Fun!” which was all well and good until young breakdancers decided to get their boogie down on the wide sidewalks of Orchard Road, the main shopping/tourist drag. This, and their blue hair, was, at that time, a step (or a head spin) too far. The same controlling instinct remains strong among Singaporean elites, and Yale won’t change that, or lead any way.

    I’ve spent my career and life working on the very same mixed curricular approaches you extol. And I agree with you, education should look like that, in New Haven (and Princeton) and on Kent Ridge. But Yale won’t bring liberal education to a fundamentally illiberal state. I doubt strongly that faculty will be allowed to speak freely about the issues I listed above, and Yale should think hard about whether its glorious name should be lent (and that’s all that’s being done, really,) to circumstances where full academic and political freedom, on a few very particular points, still have, and are likely to continue to have, very real and quite severe consequences.

  • Singaporean

    I try to imagine a fascinating seminar on democracy in Singapore. It’s possible, but you’d first have to apply for a licence from the Singapore police, and it will have to be held indoors because if it is outdoors it is technically an illegal assembly. The organiser will think that he will be watched by the police, although I cannot know for sure if he will or will not be. Students will attend, but there will be people who will avoid it, or not speak at the seminar because they think (whether rightly or no I cannot say, since I don’t work for the police) that they are being watched. Those who speak their minds will be brave or not know any better, or foreigners. Just like how homosexuality is generally openly accepted, but technically illegal, democracy is generally openly accepted, but many laws can be used to shut it down at any time. And since we still have a parliament where one dominant party has more than 2/3 of the seats, new laws can be created at any time if existing ones are not sufficient. So I feel safe in Singapore? Exceedingly so. As long as I don’t organise any fascinating democracy seminars. Although I have to say, I probably won’t be thrown into jail. So what will I be afraid of? I am not so sure, but somehow I will be.

  • jvonhettlingen

    In the wake of the financial crisis, globalisation in higher education has seen U.S. universities export themselves overseas, or to import an established and economically strong institution from abroad. The efforts of synergy highligt also the competition between university systems, which aim at improving the flow of knowledge and know-how on which the economies of our future depend. The world’s current and emerging superpowers, nearly all have either well-established or are establishing university systems that will help them compete in the global economy.

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