Singaporean college to test a new curriculum

Yale-NUS
Photo by Yale-NUS.

On top of founding a new liberal arts college, Yale-NUS administrators are calling for a reevaluation of the liberal arts in general.

After 10 months of deliberation, the Singaporean college’s inaugural Curriculum Committee released a 90-page report on April 4 detailing the final version of the curriculum to be implemented at the college Yale is establishing with the National University of Singapore. But the report’s content ventured far beyond details of the liberal arts college’s academic curriculum to address the nature of liberal arts education in Southeast Asia and the United States more broadly.

University President Richard Levin called the curriculum report a “seminal document” for contemporary liberal arts education.

“It is a profoundly powerful document that articulates the case for liberal education in the 21st century better than any other document I’ve seen so far,” Levin said. “It not only outlines the curriculum, but also gives the rationale for many different aspects of that curriculum. The question now is, can we deliver, and I am very optimistic that we can.”

Curriculum Committee Chair Bryan Garsten and Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn, two of six authors of the statement, told the News the report aims to explain how the creation of Yale-NUS fits within larger trends in liberal arts education taking place in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. The report highlights the increasing demand for the liberal arts model in Asia and traces established Asian universities’ growing interest in the arts and humanities — areas they have traditionally overlooked in favor of the fields of science and law.

Higher education experts familiar with the new college were cautious when evaluating the report, expressing enthusiasm for the University’s effort to test the liberal arts model in a new environment yet concerned that the project may face “procedural difficulties.” Most critics of Yale-NUS said the report fails to recognize the social and political realities of Singaporean life that render the college’s entire liberal arts curriculum unfeasible, leaving most of their questions about Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore unanswered.

But Yale-NUS administrators emphasized that the report’s goal was not to respond to criticism of the new college but rather to elaborate on the historical and cultural forces behind the college’s establishment.

 

RE-EXAMINING THE LIBERAL ARTS MODEL

Yale-NUS Curriculum Committee members said the report’s target audience consists of their colleagues in higher education — as opposed to prospective Yale-NUS students and parents — and that they hope those embarking on similar projects will find the report’s chronology of successful and unsuccessful liberal arts ventures in Asia useful.

“Some people question whether we are imposing this model, when in fact [Singaporeans] came looking for this,” Garsten said. “There is an enormous conversation going on in Asia about what parts of liberal arts education they might appropriate.”

Authors of the report said that since Yale-NUS professors are building the new college’s courses from scratch, the committee had the freedom to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of existing approaches to developing a curriculum. The report examines several challenges the committee faced in the process — such as how to teach different canons in a way that simultaneously allows for comparison and preserves their integrities — while also revealing the committee’s decisions. Unlike larger, more well-established universities, Yale-NUS can create new traditions rather than adhere to entrenched and often unproductive ones, the report said.

David Skelly, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at Yale and a consulting professor at Yale-NUS, said the report will likely prompt faculty in New Haven to analyze which features of the Yale curriculum have been preserved over the years because of a structural resistance to change and which features have been preserved because they truly benefit the University.

“Beyond whatever this document means for the college, it is a very important statement for what the liberal arts mean today,” Skelly said. “What makes it unusual is the very conscious effort to reimagine where the liberal arts are today by showing what they would look like if we had a clean sheet.”

The report says periodic reviews informed by faculty and student feedback are an “intrinsic element” of the college’s curriculum, a statement Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said highlights the college’s commitment to reflect frequently on the merits of new pedagogy and question educational models.

Ijechi Nazira, a Singaporean student who will matriculate at Yale-NUS this fall, said the report guarantees that the Yale-NUS community “never fall[s] into the trap of being too comfortable,” a disadvantage from which she said many older institutions suffer.

W. Robert Connor, former president and current senior adviser of the Teagle Foundation — an organization that supports undergraduate student learning in the arts and sciences — said he thinks the report is particularly relevant as liberal arts institutions have recently come under pressure to “cheapen and speed up” the process of earning a college degree, particularly in technical fields.

 

WEIGHING THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT

Most critics interviewed said they are disappointed that the report does not clarify the relationship between the college and its surrounding environment.

Yale French lector Ruth Koizim said she is frustrated by the continual lack of transparency concerning the protection of students’ and professors’ freedom of expression on and off campus.

“Maybe I am assuming worse than it actually is,” Koizim said. “The only way to find out is to have more information.”

Michael Montesano ’83, a former Southeast Asian studies professor at the National University of Singapore, said the report fails to consider the priorities of the Singaporean government and does not demonstrate an adequate understanding of the college’s social environment.

“[The report’s] invocation of Singapore, without unpacking the term in the least, is more than slightly ridiculous,” Montesano said. “[Its] treatment of Singapore is … utterly institutional — it demonstrates no understanding of the social context in which the new college is to operate.”

On April 9, Singapore’s High Court upheld Section 377A of the Singaporean penal code, which was first passed in 1938 and makes male homosexual conduct illegal in the country. Yale French and African American studies professor Christopher Miller, an outspoken critic of the Singaporean venture, said the rhetoric of the curriculum report is “meaningless” in a context in which homosexuality remains illegal, adding that the report hypocritically quotes a gay liberal scholar to rationalize a curriculum set in an environment that criminalizes homosexual behavior. Political science lecturer Jim Sleeper said the report is the result of isolated discussions divorced from Singapore’s political and economic realities.

The report briefly affirms its commitment to freedom of expression and states that “instructors and students must judge for themselves the best manner in which to express their thoughts in various settings.” Garsten said he thinks this statement was “so clear and strong” that report authors did not feel the need to elaborate on it.

Koizim also said she thinks that the timing of the report’s release is wrong and the document might have been more useful had the college released it earlier.

“It’s a lovely publicity piece that will sell really well, but it’s justifying something that is already a done deal,” Koizim said. “It would have been really dandy to have this kind of explicit information about the rationalization of the project way back, but there is this time lag. When the information is needed, we don’t get it — I feel like a review of a class was given to me after I took the final.”

Bailyn said the authors did not attempt to anticipate critics’ responses when they assembled the document and did not intend it to be a comprehensive overview of the college. Despite having detailed a plan for the liberal arts college in the report, Bailyn and Garsten said members of the Yale-NUS community are aware that unexpected issues might arise once the college opens, so the college’s administrators chose not to focus on specific, hypothetical situations.

With four months left before the opening of the college, critics will soon see whether their concerns about the college will be realized.

“Having to close the college would be embarrassing for Singapore and embarrassing for Yale,” Garsten said. “I don’t think it will happen, but any new venture like this faces some uncertainties.”

Correction: April 23

A previous version of this article inaccurate paraphrased Michael Montesano ’83 as saying that a report released earlier this month on the Yale-NUS curriculum fails to set the new college in the context of the restrictive policies of the Singaporean government. In fact, Montesano did not say these policies are restrictive but that the Singaporean government has specific priorities not acknowledged in the report.

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