POLLOCK: Keep the liberal arts in fashion

Last spring, University President Richard Levin dismissed parts of a faculty resolution encouraging Yale-NUS College to uphold a wide range of civil liberties for its students and faculty. “The tone of the resolution … carried a sense of moral superiority that I found unbecoming,” he told the News.

In other arenas, Yale’s campus certainly boasts its becoming conformity to received standards of taste, moral and otherwise. After all, Brooks Brothers just shot its “American Ivy” fall collection ads in and around Sterling library, and the pantscape of our campus looks more and more like schools of salmon swimming. Maybe we shouldn’t blush when Yale’s president feels comfortable demanding an unusually exact pattern of opinion from the faculty and, by extension, the students.

But Levin’s rhetoric reflects deeper truths about Yale-NUS and how Yale-NUS changes Yale in New Haven. The Singaporean government has made certain ideas of propriety in public discourse the law of the land. Despite Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis’ admirable promise to protect “rigorous debate,” even of a political nature, at the school, in abiding by Singaporean law the University will constrain students’ ability to speak their minds in public.

In the best-case scenario, our counterparts in Singapore will not be able to protest vocally out of doors on campus, and many of the student groups we enjoy here at Yale — like the News, for instance, which depends upon a freedom of the press that simply does not exist in Singapore — would only be able to exist in a highly attenuated form, if at all.

But what do these constraints mean for Yale in New Haven? Sad to say, we can no longer be sure our administration recognizes one of the most exhilarating things about Yale: that our classrooms aren’t just the wood-paneled rooms in WLH or brutalist concrete tombs like Davies Auditorium. They are the landscape of the many worlds we live in.

Our semi-rabid enthusiasm (as poor, over-recruited frosh I’m sure have noticed!) for our extracurricular commitments, formal and informal, certainly suggests as much. Conversations held in class or late at night in a friend’s common room have a funny way of spilling over into the way we interact with the world at large, as social beings and as citizens who occasionally take to the streets in bids to bring about change. And when we take to the streets, through action or activism of whatever stripe, loud or quiet, overt or discreet, we do so not out of heady whimsy or adolescent abandon, but because the people we live and learn with and the ideas we encounter in the texts we read sometimes change who we are and compel us to act in certain ways, both in and out of our classes.

By signing on to Yale-NUS, our administration expresses its agreement with the Singaporean government that the ideas or skills we get out of a liberal arts education are essentially neutral, inert things. Now, Yale, like the Singaporean government, believes that what we learn in the classroom — and what we do with what we learn — poses little or no threat to the sociopolitical status quo. Levin, through his support of this venture and his refusal to give all that much credence to its critics, has made clear that his administration views the things we read and the ideas we discuss in our classes as little better than fodder for polite discussion and debate — training for future cocktail parties.

Set aside the fact that the Yale is helping a government that, in the letter of its laws, has criminalized homosexuality; the fact that Yale’s faculty had no opportunity to vote on this significant change to the University; that the exact nature of Yale-NUS and Yale’s future relationship remains a little murky. What Yale-NUS indicates about our administration’s stance towards the liberal arts should alone give us pause — however ultimately unbecoming such reflections may be.

Happily, we at Yale in New Haven still can (and will) agitate and protest against Yale-NUS. We will do this because, sadly, our peers in Singapore won’t have that freedom. Yale, eschewing its commitment to the liberal arts, will be partly to blame.

Ryan Pollock is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at ryan.pollock@yale.edu.

Comments

  • jwr

    Excellent piece. So many questions are unanswered about freedom of political speech at Yale-NUS.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “. . . like the News, for instance, which depends upon a freedom of the press that simply does not exist in Singapore . . .”

    If it’s worth anything at all as a newspaper, YDN darn well better make sure it’s got a reporter on the NUS scene every day of the academic year filing reports back to the News.

    BTW—Why doesn’t Yale simply capitulate to the left brain wonks. Do away with the liberal arts entirely, put the curriculum entirely in the hands of the greatest quantifiers of all time, [Bill and Melinda Gradgrind][1] and their foundation.

    Go ahead, Yale.

    Hammer the last nail in Harold Bloom’s coffin.

    PK

    [1]: http://gradgrindfoundation.blogspot.com/

  • Milton

    Excellent piece, indeed! It captures what has been so deeply disillusioning and dispiriting for some faculty about the compromises of academic freedom openly acknowledged by Levin, Lewis, and other Yale-NUS supporters: to accept those compromises–that academic freedom is something that can exist in any real sense while limited to the classroom–is to deny what many of us have believed about the potential, unforeseeable ramifications of classroom teaching. The powers of thinking and expression in the piece give me hope, though: this is what Yale students can do! Please keep on “thinking globally” while “acting locally”–i.e., in this institution we inhabit–which itself demands the application of our critical thinking powers.