Yale-NUS, a liberal arts model?

Association of American Universities President Hunter Rawlings gave a speech last month in which he decried the criticism of liberal education in the United States.

In a speech titled “The Lion in the Path,” Rawlings argued that even though the liberal arts model is losing popularity in the U.S., it continues to be the ideal and most effective contributor to critical knowledge, national security and national economic growth. But while Americans grow increasingly skeptical of the liberal arts, people all over the world admire and attempt to emulate them, Rawlings said — pointing to Yale-NUS in Singapore as a primary example.

“Other countries are now doing whatever they possibly can to emulate American universities and even our liberal arts colleges. Look at Singapore, where Yale is collaborating with NUS to start a high-end, traditional American liberal arts college with a new East-West curriculum,” he said.

Rawlings told the News that though Asian universities generally operate on a different set of values and traditions and will have more difficulty emulating the American liberal arts model in full, the Yale-NUS partnership between Yale and the National University of Singapore shows that this model can be successfully implemented overseas.

Rawlings said Yale-NUS has the base of a liberal arts college, an American phenomenon, as well as the creative freedom to build new components driven by both NUS and Singapore.

Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation — an association for higher education — also said she likes the idea that Yale-NUS is a partnership and not a branch campus, which one could see as “somewhat colonialist.”

Rawlings said the key feature that makes Yale-NUS a promising model is its curriculum. It is both innovative and traditional, he said, and has the advantage of having all students take courses together and build upon the same knowledge base.

“Elements of this model are clearly very effective, and I would hope that liberal arts colleges would absorb some of those ideas,” Rawlings said. “Perhaps we have become too loose with the curriculum.”

Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said there is a general disenchantment with the model of academic distributional requirements and this is why the common curriculum at Yale-NUS is so attractive.

Shapiro said the curriculum at Yale-NUS is a strong model of liberal arts education because of its content and because it was made by a community of faculty members who care not about their areas of expertise but also about the curriculum as a whole which will serve all the students.

Like Rawlings, Shapiro said the curriculum, both in its rigid structure and its inclusion of different civilizations, could serve as an example for liberal arts colleges in the U.S. She added that the Yale-NUS faculty interacts as a community — and that this collaborative model would also be beneficial if brought back to the U.S.

“It would be good to move in a direction where faculty members think of themselves both as a community of scholars and a community of teachers, and that’s how I see the faculty who collaborated on the Yale-NUS curriculum,” she said.

Lawrence University President Mark Burstein, who gave a presentation last month that touched on how the Yale-NUS model could benefit his university, told the News that two themes he sees at Yale-NUS are of particular interest to him: the focus on presentation and the emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. Yale-NUS recognizes that giving both written and oral presentation are essential critical skills for undergraduates and tries to implement this in every course, he said.

The focus on interdisciplinary learning, Burstein said, captures the potential direction in which liberal arts education is going.

“There is so much more potential for discovery [today] on the edges of disciplines and on how they connect,” he said.

Lewis said the Integrated Science course at Yale-NUS is an example of this interdisciplinary approach because it tries to get both science and non-science majors interested in the process of scientific inquiry.

Raeden Richardson, a Yale-NUS student, said one of the primary advantages of the Yale-NUS curriculum is the study of both Eastern and Western civilizations.

“Our merging of East-West is unparalleled by any institution in the U.S., and the lack of Eastern studies is a major flaw in many liberal arts programs there,” he said. “The world is bigger than the philosophies of Plato and Mill or the literature of Homer and Blake.”

Adrian Stymne, another Yale-NUS student, said that while there are many strengths to the curriculum — such as the broad cultural approach and the emphasis on research — he is aware of outside criticism as well. He said some students think the common curriculum is too consuming or unnecessary.

Yale-NUS opened its doors to its inaugural class last fall.

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