When I was invited to join the planning committee for the hypothetical Yale-National University of Singapore College, I had my doubts, but these vanished as I became more familiar with the setting and the possibilities. Further commitment on Yale’s part will depend on votes by the faculty and the Corporation. I write to urge support for the initiative.
One reason for pride in Yale is our history of educational experiment. We don’t have a School of Education, and perhaps the reason is that we are always trying out new things. The liberal-arts model of education — education that sought to develop all the faculties of the mind by introducing students to a variety of subjects, rather than to one course of professional training — was a Yale idea of 1828 that caught on. Courses in contemporary literature, another shockingly new idea in the Yale of 1890, have become a core element in the syllabuses of English departments everywhere. College seminars, designed to explore topics outside traditional departmental lines, were a Yale invention. The residential college system, an inheritance from Oxford and Cambridge improved upon, you might say, here at Yale, is another widely emulated innovation. In the 19th century, students and faculty of Yale went off to the Southern, Midwestern and Western states of this country, as well as to some foreign countries, to be the founding deans and presidents of many institutions.
In each of these cases, Yale generously shared with its colleagues and sister institutions the fruits of its experiments and applauded their success. It’s in the spirit of the motto “Lux et veritas” — my light is not diminished when my neighbor lights his candle at mine, and a truth becomes more powerful, not less, when it is shared.
The rise of Asian universities puts several competing models of education into the arena. I think the Yale variant is a good one — possibly, when all’s said and done, the best — and even if it does not secure universal assent, it will add to the internal diversity and richness of Asian societies. The competition is for high stakes: It will decide what a meaningful education is in Asia and in the world over the next century or two. These incentives, both practical and principled, made it exciting to accept the invitation to develop a new version, in a new place, of the things we do well.
Everyone who teaches and, I suspect, everyone who studies at Yale both appreciates the intimate scale of the place and wishes it were bigger so that more people could enjoy the benefits of the education offered here. The planning for the proposed new colleges has been, more than anything else, guided by this dual desire to offer a Yale education to more students while keeping growth from turning Yale into an anonymous and impersonal educational services center. The opportunity to design a new college — not a Yale college, but a Yale-inspired one — in collaboration with NUS confers a similar benefit by allowing Yale to extend the benefit without sacrificing the scale. Partnering with NUS would also give Yale faculty and students more opportunities to develop professional ties with counterparts halfway across the globe. Thus, it would accomplish two goals that usually appear to be mutually exclusive. And it’s good to be able to do ambitious things in spite of budgetary duress.
To be sure, there is a lot still to be worked out and not just matters of detail (is there ever such a thing as a “mere detail”?). A Yale-NUS College in Singapore would be a new creation. It would not be a carbon copy of the Yale familiar to us all; it couldn’t be, any more than Singapore can turn itself into New Haven. Nor does anyone in Singapore desire a simple replica of a foreign college, however admirable. Yale-NUS College would, however, incorporate lessons and values from our long experience here and contextualize them in ways that can be partly foreseen and remain partly to be discovered. It would be an experiment in intercultural learning, drawing on a deep pool of inquisitive, ambitious, intelligent young people and no doubt helping them to become leaders in their own countries just as Yale has long done in this country.
So I hope that, despite the questions that remain, students, alumni, faculty, and fellows of the Corporation will give this initiative their approval. It stands to expand our universe without tearing its fabric.
Haun Saussy is the Bird White Housum Professor Comparative Literature and chair of the Council on East Asian Studies. He co-chaired the committee of Yale professors convened to discuss the possible curriculum at Yale-NUS College.