When Yale Meets Confucius

Examining the meaning of an “Asian context” for liberal arts education

Last April, Yale University established a historic partnership with the National University of Singapore to create its first campus outside of New Haven. Yale-NUS College, the first liberal arts institution to open in Asia, expects its first class of students in 2013. This partnership has raised various questions among commentators on higher education about the viability of the liberal arts education model in a country that upholds rigid educational traditions rooted in Confucian meritocracy—that is, a set of philosophies contradictory to the principles of a liberal arts education.

Of course, one can argue that Yale’s branch campus can potentially open up opportunities for liberalization in the academic sphere and beyond in Singapore. For now, however, all surface evidence suggests that engaging with problematic issues is not a priority on Yale’s agenda. Professor Christopher L. Miller of Yale, one of many like-minded commentators, has written a highly critical article in the Chronicle of Higher Education to expose the conspicuous issues of censorship and discrimination raised by this partnership. Most notably, he remarks that, if employed at Yale-NUS, he would be “subject to arrest” because of his homosexuality, which is in principle punishable by law in Singapore. It goes without saying that such an environment is fundamentally incompatible with Yale’s principles of non-discrimination, diversity, and unfettered academic freedom.

With carefully chosen rhetoric explaining why the international community needs to engage with Asia in this “Asian century,” the website of the new college emphasizes that the aim of the school is to “strengthen” and “contextualize” Yale’s liberal arts education model and make it relevant to Singapore and Asia at large. This claim, which seems reasonable at first glance, raises an obvious question: What exactly is this so-called “Asian context”? A liberal arts education, like the one we enjoy at Harvard, by its very nature eludes placement into any restrictive context. In fact, the only “context” needed is one that fosters the free inquiry of knowledge, inclusiveness, and diversity. Having completed an Asian-style education in Hong Kong, I can say from experience that this “Asian context” in question is in reality a euphemism for the narrowly defined, test-based, conservative educational philosophies prevalent across Asia. Singapore’s education system in particular, as is rather well-known in Asia, utilizes a “streaming” system based on arbitrary examinations at a young age. Primary school students as young as nine or ten are “streamed” into higher or lower-level academic programs according to their standardized examination results, with students labeled “less able” often facing much discouragement and undue stress from their peers, teachers, and parents. It seems fair to say that such a “context” is fundamentally incompatible with the ideal that underlies the liberal arts philosophy that Yale embraces.

In an interview, Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the NUS, said that one important goal of the joint campus is to catalyze the development of liberal arts education in Asia. This claim warrants a further question about the nature and viability of the project—namely, why a liberal arts education needs to be introduced through a partnership with Yale, one of the world’s most prestigious colleges, and not through local reform. To those who are familiar with the prevailing Asian mentality toward education, it is easy to understand why Yale’s name is absolutely necessary for such an endeavor to succeed at all. Put bluntly, very few students—rather, very few parents—would allow their children to bother with a liberal arts education if a prestigious college’s name were not somehow attached to the program. It is very likely that a great number of students will enroll in Yale-NUS for the prestige without truly embracing the value of the liberal arts education that they will receive. A few overwhelmingly popular majors will likely draw a majority of students, making this “liberal arts” college not much different from highly specialized colleges where students of high ability choose one of a small range of subjects considered most useful and prestigious.

The “Asian context” for the liberal arts education offered at Yale-NUS seems to entail adopting the more superficial aspects of a liberal arts model without engaging with the values that it represents. As such, it is difficult to think of the college as a catalyst for real educational liberalization in Singapore and the continent beyond. As Miller suggests, we might just have to wait and see whether Yale’s fundamental principles of academic freedom and non-discrimination, as well as its liberal arts ideal, will remain intact after the college admits its first students. One hope is that the international faculty that is eventually employed at Yale-NUS, as champions of liberal thought and learning, will use their influence to foster more liberal views on specific issues and on education among students, even if substantial change cannot be created in the system itself. Students who are exposed, even if reluctantly, to a liberal arts education may one day become parents who appreciate the merits of such a system and bring more flexibility and open-mindedness to the traditional Asian perspective on education and success.

Charlotte C. Chang ’12 is a Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Pforzheimer house. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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