Even if a train has left the station, it’s important to be clear about what may go wrong on the journey – especially if one is already on the train! Since Yale’s decision to forge ahead with its college in Singapore is full of peril as well as promise, those of us who’ve been critical of the venture should reiterate our normative and pedagogical concerns.
Yale and its graduates aren’t strangers to the blessings of international education and cosmopolitan visions. I myself might not have earned my PhD in philosophy at Yale had I not first graduated the American College for Girls in Istanbul, Turkey, founded and funded by New England Presbyterians, including citizens of New Haven such as the Washburn family.
Singapore, however, seems a poor choice of a venue in which to expand the model of Yale College in Asia. Some call it a police state, citing ample evidence, and there’s little question that it is authoritarian and continues to commit significant violations of basic human rights. Recent tremors in the country’s politics may even accelerate, not diminish, these violations.
If our purpose is to set a model for a liberal arts education, why not engage India, the country with a free and contentious public sphere and an extra-ordinary intellectual life both in India and in the Indian diaspora? Experiments in democratic education are best performed with in genuinely open, multicultural and multi-faith democracies, such as India, rather than in the artificial, boutique-like security of places like Singapore or Abu Dhabi.
Proponents of Yale’s venture marshal long-discredited “cultural relativist” arguments to suggest that “we” have no business judging other countries’ human rights records and that we should learn the rules and mores of other cultures.
This line of reasoning – a long, convoluted one in law, philosophy, and political science — rides the tired notion that sound “Asian” values must be respected even if they are irreconcilable with “Western” understandings of human rights and democracy. But no one professing the liberal arts, especially in Yale’s name, can fail to insist that “human rights have no walls” and that all values are subject to critical scrutiny, whether some call them “Asian” or western. If we don’t live up to these principles, then the whole project is compromised from the start.
I predict that some event in Singapore’s political life or in the interaction of Yale College in Singapore with the larger society will involve some deep clash of principles for the university and that it will tarnish Yale’s own standing for human rights and democratic values.
Finally, why should those who want the Singapore project to serve as an experiment in reforming the core liberal-arts curriculum try to make that tail wag this dog? Let us experiment and reform liberal education as liberal democracies actually do best — through vigorous debate and reforms of old curricular assumptions right here at Yale.
Seyla Benhabib is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy