BAILYN: At Yale-NUS, strengthening the liberal arts

The liberal arts seem to be welded to the adjective “embattled” these days. Elected officials denounce the “waste” in college budgets as they reduce funding levels; pundits decry the fall of standards and the rise of tuition; internet gurus tout the virtues of Massive Online Open Courses, a MOOC-ified education. But other parts of the world, where geopolitical fortunes are on the rise, are moving quickly toward the model that the United States appears to be abandoning. All across Asia, attempts are being made to create institutions that embrace the kind of education we are familiar with here at Yale. This combination of strong but challenged institutions in the United States, and rapidly growing interest in this model of education elsewhere, has resulted among other things in the creation of Yale-NUS College, which will open in a few months in Singapore.

In preparation for the new college, the inaugural faculty of Yale-NUS has been working in New Haven since last September to consider how to preserve and enhance the virtues of a liberal arts approach in a new time and place. We have had the remarkable opportunity to spend a full academic year discussing these matters with each other, and with colleagues from Yale and elsewhere. The resulting debates were often quite heated — but we could not simply hold our positions or agree to disagree, as so often in academic debates, since we will be teaching the courses that emerge from our conversations in a few short months. So creative syntheses of seemingly incompatible ideas had to be achieved.

Last Thursday, the curriculum committee of Yale-NUS College released a report describing some of the considerations that have emerged from this incubation year. Among the issues we discuss in the report are the purpose and value of a residential college in the internet age; the importance of a community in which unfettered, articulate communication is developed and practiced; the tensions between research and teaching in a collegiate setting; the relative virtues of distribution systems and common curricula; ways to strengthen introductory science education for majors and non-majors; the potential of bringing together course work, extracurriculars and off-campus activities to form a robust “co-curriculum”; how to create powerful interdisciplinary programs while still maintaining the intellectual integrity of the disciplines themselves; and of special importance to this particular venture, how best to bring texts and ideas from different cultures into conversation inside the classroom.

Many members of the Yale faculty have contributed significantly to the development of the Yale-NUS curriculum. The link they are providing between Yale and Yale-NUS ensures that the influence of Yale on the new institution will be strong, as its name suggests. At the same time, many of the participating Yale faculty members agree that their thinking about pedagogical and curricular matters here at Yale has been enriched and enhanced by their conversations about Yale-NUS — the positive influence works both ways. This will only accelerate in the future as a small but steady flow of Yale faculty members participate directly in the new college, and return to New Haven with a broader perspective on undergraduate education.

Institutions benefit from interacting with a different culture in the same way that individuals do — they acquire a clearer view of their own assumptions and preconceptions, and a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their own traditions. Yale and Yale-NUS are both benefitting by the interactions between their faculties, and liberal arts education around the world will be the stronger for it.

Charles Bailyn, the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, is the dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College.

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