Commentary: A liberal arts education in Singapore and the usefulness of ‘useless’ knowledge, Channel NewsAsia, 22 April 2018

Channel NewsAsia carried a commentary by Yale-NUS Professor of Social Sciences (Political Science) and Director of the Common Curriculum, Terry Nardin, who discussed the value of a liberal arts education.

Professor Nardin argued that the idea of a liberal arts education challenges the typical view of the importance of vocational preparation to many in Singapore and Asia. The key differentiator is that liberal arts students are exposed to a range of disciplines, which encourages flexibility in thinking and develops an ability to approach a problem from multiple angles. At Yale-NUS, this takes the form of immersion in a common curriculum, where students take a variety of classes in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. These subjects are studied as distinct and interesting ways of thinking, rather than mainly as a set of tools to be applied in solving engineering, medical or other technical problems.

Professor Nardin noted that this emphasis on breadth, along with the ability to look at a problem from a variety of angles that goes with it, enables liberal arts colleges to produce graduates who succeed because they have acquired the range of ideas and abilities needed to move from narrowly defined jobs to leadership positions. He also highlighted the emphasis on discussion-based learning in small groups and early exposure to hands-on research, which encourages students to reflect on what they are learning, articulate what they have learned, and practise how to reach reasoned consensus with their peers and instructors. Professor Nardin added that the marketplace knows the value of these qualities, citing figures released in the recent Singapore Graduate Employment Survey indicating that Yale-NUS class of 2017 graduates achieved an employment rate of over 93 percent within the first six months of graduation, as compared to overall employment rate of 88.9 percent among other Singapore universities. Beyond the employability and successes of a graduate with a liberal arts degree, Professor Nardin also suggested that the goal of a liberal arts education is in part to cultivate a sense of curiosity and to allow new ideas to develop. The ultimate point of chasing knowledge, as thinkers in Greece, China and elsewhere concluded over time, is to realise one’s full human potential.


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