The faculty debate about Yale-NUS has focused on Singapore government policy towards homosexuality and free political expression, which everyone knows is not the same as in the United States. Objection to our presence abroad brings to the fore just how exceptional American policies are and just how exceptional the debate about liberal values is within an institution of higher learning like Yale.
Most European countries are tolerant in the realms of sexuality and human rights. But university education throughout Europe is supported solely by the state, and you can bet your last euro that it serves nationalist aims. No place measures up to North America when it comes to fostering programs like women’s, gender & sexuality studies or the LGBT Cooperative — along with other identity-defined disciplines — as an integral part of college life.
So, I ask: Just what does anyone think the government of Singapore was thinking when it invited Yale to establish within its borders a liberal arts college with policies and practices which it knows to be different from its own? On one account, it looks like the invitation for Yale to enter Singapore is itself a sign of governmental openness — or some significant part of governmental openness — to change. As students of politics know, these things are never simple or one-sided and sometimes come more easily from without than from within. It is only with the support of Yale on the ground that the proponents for the change that all of us would like to see might be encouraged and prevail.
Since there is virtually no country that can match the standard we set for the rest of the world when it comes to academic freedom and human rights, it is a nonstarter to demand that a government change its policy to match our own before Yale commits to working with it. Not to make that commitment at this point is a sign of complicity with the most conservative elements of the Singapore regime, a betrayal of the NUS faculty who have expressed the will to be more like their North American colleagues and a defeat for progress via educational means.
But I like Yale-NUS for other reasons. The Yale experiment offers the chance to build a university without the hobbling disciplinary limits of our conventional departments. I love my department, as I love all 17 of the departments and programs within the Division of the Humanities. But the storage of knowledge in silos that were established for the most part in the late 19th or early 20th century is an impediment to the generation of new ideas among faculty colleagues and intellectual excitement among undergraduates.
The proof is that the humanities major, which offers broad courses and allows students to work significantly in more than one discipline at a time, is one of the fastest-growing majors on Yale’s campus. On this score, Yale-NUS will be way ahead of Yale-US, though the government of Singapore has some catching up to do on other fronts.
As a nexus between India, China and the West, Singapore’s location favors an important conceptual realignment of the humanities that will be a long time coming to the home campus in New Haven — that is, a synthesis of the ways that ideas and creative works of East and West intersect historically as well as conceptually with each other. Emphasis on what is common to the textual, visual and musical cultures of the world lies at the root core of the new curriculum, which will likely someday have an effect on the courses in our own Blue Book.
I look to Yale-NUS if not to solve then at least to prime the pump of recovery in the job market for humanities Ph.D.s. Not only will there be jobs in Singapore for those in an incredibly tight job market, but those who teach at Yale-NUS will be broadly trained and better adapted to teach in the globalized university of the future. Should they want to return to the U.S., they will enjoy a distinct advantage in their ability to offer the kind of big-issue, personally meaningful, culturally comprehensive courses that undergraduates clearly want and that are beyond the ken of many Ph.D.s trained in our traditional single-discipline departments.
For these and other reasons, Yale should take the lead and give it a go. The potential upside is great, the risk, low. This is not a perfect world, but Yale’s engagement in Singapore is a way of making it better. And if there is an unforeseen disaster, we can, having done the right thing from the start, always pull out. In the meantime, Yale-NUS offers an exciting means of rethinking the humanities and a way for the power of liberal studies to venture beyond the walls of ivy.
R. Howard Bloch is Sterling Professor of French and chair of the Humanities Program.