Liberal arts education: Lessons from Singapore

The first dean of faculty of Yale-NUS College, the first liberal arts college here, reflects on what is striking about Singapore: its 'growth mindset' and a culture of respect for respect.


Educators generally encourage students to travel - to engage in study and other activities abroad whenever possible. The idea is that the ability to work and live in unfamiliar cultures and situations is a key skill, and one ought to get some practice.

The same might be said for middle-aged professors and centuries-old institutions. I've been testing this proposition recently in my role as the inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College, Singapore's first liberal arts college. It has been an extraordinary privilege to contribute to the founding of the college, and as I step away, I find myself pondering how the values and experiences I brought with me have fared in this quite different environment.

The tradition of education in the liberal arts and sciences involves three interlocking features. The curriculum exposes students to disciplines far outside their primary academic interests - breadth as well as depth is deemed crucial. The pedagogical approach involves active learning - actively using and evaluating information, rather than simply acquiring and repeating it. And learning is expected to occur outside the classroom, in a residential setting through interactions with other students and staff, to reinforce and extend the classroom experience.

It's a style of education designed to generate creative thinkers and entrepreneurial citizens, skilled at adapting to new circumstances that require new kinds of knowledge or applications.

Right now, those of us who espouse this approach find ourselves at a curious inflection point. The traditional epicentre of the liberal arts, the United States, is turning against it. A toxic combination of shrinking resources, anti-intellectualism in the political system, a society fixated on celebrity and finance, a culture of ever more inward-focused tribalism, and communication devices and media content specifically designed to reduce attention spans have led to a sense of crisis. It's hard to turn around without bumping into a book, conference, blog post or Twitter account devoted to the ongoing crisis of the liberal arts.


At the same time, Asia, traditionally home to a much more targeted and utilitarian educational approach, is demonstrating a renewed interest in the liberal arts and sciences. Singapore has chosen to put significant resources into Yale-NUS College, and is working to infuse more of the general approach into all levels of education. Countries such as Japan, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and others elsewhere in the region are working towards similar goals. In contrast to the case in the US, liberal arts education forms an expanding universe in Asia. The future of this enterprise, as with many others, appears to be Asian.


So what have I learnt here that I could take back to my own country that might be useful there?

One lesson is simply that unfamiliar places are not what they appear to be from a distance of thousands of miles.

The problem most commonly, in some cases very confidently, predicted by some of my colleagues in the US has not come to pass. They asserted that the academic freedom necessary for a liberal arts approach could not be found in Singapore. This prediction has proved false - faculty members have been free to do the research they want to do, and to assign whatever course materials or activities to students as they see fit.

Students have generally embraced the opportunity to engage with instructors and with one another over "sensitive" issues such as religious beliefs, gender roles and sexual orientation. Organisations, events and speakers across the full spectrum of political and cultural viewpoints have flourished at Yale-NUS College.

But that does not mean we have not encountered some real difficulties. Many of these arose from the rapid changes experienced by a start-up that doubles in size every year. Our educational and institutional policies and practices have had to be continually adjusted year to year - sometimes in quite significant ways. We have had to build crucial parts of the plane while it was already in flight.

The discussions about what we are and where we are heading have become heated at times. This is true regarding seemingly minor issues such as the college mascot - it took about a year of robust debate before we settled on the kingfisher - as well as more important issues, such as the honours classification system and the relationship between the science courses in the common curriculum. But as the college enters its fourth year, with a steady state in student and staff numbers within sight, I believe we are settling into a strong and stable situation in which people know what to expect.

That said, not all of this ferment will die down - at least I hope that it won't. I hope that a spirit of innovation and argument will be a permanent feature of the college, and that change, and forcefully expressed dissent regarding those changes, will always be present. Such an environment can be uncomfortable, but it is an education in itself.

Citizens with experience and confidence in navigating change and conflict are precisely those who will become the leaders of our challenging, evolving world.


I have also encountered positive features of life in Singapore that are not as prevalent in the US, and I hope to take some of them back with me. One such feature is a respect for respect. Argumentation is all very well, but in the absence of respectful attitudes and behaviours towards the other side of the conversation, it lapses too easily into simple insults and vilification - a situation seen all too often in the American political and cultural scene these days.

But what I will miss most is the forward-looking and optimistic attitude I have found here. This might seem paradoxical - Singapore and Singaporeans have a reputation for being practical and pessimistic, without much idealism or romanticism, complainers who do not do much about their complaints. But that is not how it appears to me.

There are new things arising all the time here. Yale-NUS College is in itself an example - in the US these days, colleges are closing, not opening. Other new educational and research opportunities are also being developed, and this is mirrored by ongoing advances in general infrastructure, such as new MRT lines, housing estates and port facilities.

New resources are being brought to bear on old problems, and new ways of operating and behaving are slowly emerging, sometimes with difficulty and controversy, to create a more expansive society. While there is still much to be achieved, there seems to be what my colleagues in psychology call a "growth mindset", an expectation that effort and dedication will lead to improvement.

Unfortunately, the US, traditionally a place of innovation and expansion, currently seems to exhibit some of the negative aspects of a "fixed mindset".

There, pessimism about the prospects of liberal arts education in both familiar and unfamiliar settings correlates with a reluctance to do the work needed to repair crumbling infrastructure; increasingly bitter disputes between ethnic, racial and socio-economic groups; and in some quarters, an overall feeling that we must retrench and become a smaller, more inward-looking society.

I myself remain an idealist: I hope and believe that a society can be created that allows individuals to fully realise their personal potential, with broad and flexible understanding and skills, within an optimistic, diverse community that values and promotes respectful disagreement.

Such a society will not emerge from any one tradition. Just as hybrid plants are often hardier than any of the strains that went into them, we will need to look across the globe for the combination of strengths needed to surmount the challenges of the modern age.

•The writer is inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS College and A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics, Yale University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2016, with the headline 'Liberal arts education: Lessons from Singapore'. Subscribe