First Year Assembly 2013: Education as a Calling

Speech by Professor Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College 
at the First Year Assembly 2013
4 July 2013, at Multipurpose Hall, Yale-NUS College

Education as a Calling

Students, faculty, and staff,

Welcome!  This is an exciting week for us.  The College is opening after over four years of planning, and you have all come to join us for what I expect will be four formative years in your lives.

This is also a season of national celebrations.  Monday was Canada Day—which celebrates the Confederation of my home country—and next month we will celebrate Singaporean National Day. Today, the 4th of July, is of course, American Independence Day, and in honor of the United States, my adopted country, I would like to welcome all of you with words of the great American poet Walt Whitman.  In his poem “A Passage to India,” Whitman, writing in the late nineteenth century, an earlier age of globalization, praises the explorers and engineers who have knitted together the world, which he refers to using the adjective “terraqueous,” meaning made of both land and water.  He writes of

the vast terraqueous globe—
Europe to Asia, Africa join’d, and they to the New World

Today, I am delighted to be welcoming to Yale-NUS College students from Europe and Asia, from Africa and from the Americas, and of course from Australia and New Zealand, joined together in our first entering class.

Whitman imagines ecstatically what the future of globalization will look like:

Passage to India!
…The earth to be spann’d, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together.

We have certainly not reached the stage of globalization where all people regard each other as brothers and sisters, but we are linked to other parts of the world by networks that Whitman could not have imagined, and the distant has been brought remarkably near to us.  The opening of Yale-NUS College is a testament to the ability of people to co-operate with colleagues from the other side of the terraqueous globe.

In the glorious multicultural future, Whitman imagined that after the engineers and explorers would come the Poet, whose task is to justify the existence of this world:

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors—after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the Poet, worthy that name….

Although as a literature professor I am partial to poetry, I would rather think of these many knowledge workers laboring together for a better future—the geologist, the ethnologist (we would say, the anthropologist), and the poet—or, more broadly, the scientist, the social scientist, and the humanist.  Our work will not be accomplished, in Whitman’s sense of finally completed, in the lifetimes of anyone here, but one of the reasons for our great excitement this week at the founding of Yale-NUS College is our sense that we are embarking on a journey together and we do not know exactly where it will lead, either for ourselves or for future generations of students.  To be embarking on such a voyage to unknown lands is in some sense the essence of liberal arts education, but it is a particularly apt metaphor for our new undertaking in founding a College.

I would like to speak to you today about the nature of a liberal education and the social conditions that make it possible.  I will frame my remarks around the idea of “Education as a Calling.”  In two famous lectures of almost a century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber spoke about “Scholarship as a Calling” and “Politics as a Calling.”  The essays are usually translated with the Latinate word “vocation” for “calling” (the German “Beruf”).  In German and in English, the words can refer simply to a particular career or profession.  When we speak of “vocational education,” we usually mean the kind of education that prepares you for a particular job.

But “vocation” or “calling” can also refer to an inner sense of being called to undertake a great task or to lead a particular kind of life.  It is in this sense that I think of liberal education as the kind of education that will allow you to find your own calling.  It is “vocational” education in a higher sense—not so much the education that prepares you for a particular vocation but the education that prepares you to find that higher calling.  In the college’s mission statement, we speak of encouraging an “ethic of service.”  We do not specify for you how you should serve, or even which ideals or which community you should serve.  That is for you to determine.  But we do hope to engage you in thoughtful discussion of the importance of service.  We want you to find your own calling, whether that is helping the poor, becoming a research scientist or academic, starting a business, serving in the government or military, starting a family, or indeed any other vocation that you truly embrace as embodying your highest ideals.  In explaining the importance of liberal education for Singapore, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman some years ago commented that Singapore should embrace “a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority.” Yet even as the Deputy Prime Minister noted areas in which Singapore’s educational system should continue to develop, I think we should acknowledge some of the unique strengths of what Singapore has already. Singapore has a strong commitment to respect for people of diverse racial and religious backgrounds; a sense of solidarity and shared devotion to making this island nation succeed at an international level despite its small size and lack of natural resources; and an optimism about the possibility of constant improvement; all of which carry important lessons for both of my home countries, Canada and the United States.  Just as we seek to understand the interaction of Asian and Western cultures in our curriculum, we seek in our institution a combination of strengths from the North American and the Singaporean educational systems.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman’s words remind us that there are certain essential prerequisites for developing a successful liberal arts college.  First are what Max Weber calls in his essay on “Science as a Calling” the “external conditions” of scholarship: in this case, investment by the government of Singapore and by your families in the resources that make such an education possible: the buildings, the library and computer labs, the recruitment of outstanding faculty and staff.

But there are also what could be considered the “internal conditions” for success: the orientation we all must take towards our liberal education to make it succeed.  First, we must have a commitment to judging people on their merits and accomplishments, understood broadly—not just in terms of test scores; we seek to encourage everyone to develop their talents to the fullest, even when this means going outside their comfort zones; and we seek to cultivate, as our mission statement also puts it, “creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking.”  We also expect you as students to challenge conventional wisdom and indeed to challenge our authority as professors.  This doesn’t mean that we want you to disobey the academic regulations or throw fits in class; rather, it means that we expect you to disagree with some of what we say in the classroom or outside, and we expect you to express that disagreement in a reasoned and articulate way.

We as faculty—and the other staff of the college as well—have chosen education as our vocation because we believe that our highest calling is to help develop the talents and potential of young people like yourselves.  Liberal arts education certainly provides benefits for your economic future—by making you into versatile workers who can take on many different careers in the course of a lifetime.  We also believe that it will help you to become better citizens—by making yourselves well-informed about current issues and their historical context and about the principles of social organization.  I hope too that the education we provide will help you to develop ethically, to become your best selves, through contemplating justice and morality, through appreciating the great works of various cultures and the great minds who have articulated universal truths, and through finding the correct combination for you of the intellectual life—the life of the mind—and the active life—the life of action and service.

In his essay on “Science as a Calling,” Weber quotes the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy to the effect that the essential question for all of us is “What shall we do and how shall we live?”  Weber argued that the modern age is one of “disenchantment,” in which we no longer believe that the world itself has an essential meaning.  For Weber, this also led to a somewhat pessimistic assessment of the possibilities for education.  Since science, and learning more generally, is continually expanding, it is impossible for any one of us to command even a tiny fraction of all the knowledge that is out there in the world.  Furthermore, whatever scientific discoveries we make today are destined to be surpassed in just a few years.  For Weber, this meant that modern life lacked the sense of meaning that life in a more traditional society, whose mores and intellectual presuppositions were not constantly changing, could supply.  Scholarship, he thought, could no longer provide us with guidance on what to do and how to live.

To some extent, this entire enterprise, Yale-NUS College, goes against Weber’s idea of scholarship.  We are deliberately asking each of you to be a generalist as well as a specialist—to spend a good portion of your time at College thinking about questions regarding the meaning of life.  Weber recognized, however, that even while scholarship could not necessarily solve the problem of how to live, the scholar as teacher did have a responsibility to his or her students.  That duty, our duty, is not to tell you what you should do with your life, how you should live, but it is to confront you with what Weber called “inconvenient facts,” that is, facts that may challenge your preconceived opinions.  This is not to say that we will only present the facts that support our own opinions—far from it, if we are doing our job right we will also present facts that challenge what we ourselves hold dear.  Weber summarizes the task of the educator as follows, “we can force the individual, or at least we can help the individual, to give himself an account of the ultimate meaning of his own conduct.”  In other words, our task is to require you to clarify your answer to the questions “what shall we do and how shall we live?”  We cannot answer the questions for you, but we can ask you to confront them.

One essential social precondition for education as a calling is academic freedom.  The essence of academic freedom is the freedom of scholars and students to debate even controversial issues without external constraint or interference.  This also means that academic work, whether a student paper or a scholarly article written by a faculty member, should be judged according to its intellectual qualities and not according to some external agenda.  The Faculty of Yale-NUS have stated that “There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.”  As President, I invite you to ask any question, discuss and debate any answer.

I would like to address one other aspect of freedom of expression as it relates to the broader theme of respect for diversity.  Academic freedom depends on the ability of students and faculty to ask any question and debate any answer.  But it also depends on the maintenance of an atmosphere of mutual respect.  If debate degenerates into name-calling or needless provocation, it does not serve an academic or educational purpose.  Education, as a calling, depends both on the maintenance of a large and well-defended sphere of intellectual and academic freedom, and on the maintenance of respect and civility within that zone.  I trust that Yale-NUS College will be a place where ideas can be debated on their own merits and where no one will denigrate another’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. It is only on terms of mutual respect that we can accomplish this challenging but exciting journey together.

I have addressed the social context and preconditions of education as a calling and the demands it places on the individual.  But this is perhaps to place too heavy an emphasis on the challenges of education.  We should also remember its joy and the opportunity it gives us for expanding our horizons.  Max Weber ended his lecture on scholarship as calling by saying that each individual should follow his or her own demon, the spirit that some of the ancient Greeks believed attends each of us throughout life.  I urge you to read widely, to conduct experiments, to solve problems, to create art.  Explore subjects that were not covered in your A-levels, AP exams, or International Baccalaureate.  Join a student organization or form a new one.  Take up a sport or a musical instrument that you have never played before.  Choose a week seven experience that will take you outside your comfort zone.  Broaden your horizons.  Imagine yourself on a ship sailing out into deep waters.  Or in Whitman’s words:

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

My colleagues and I look forward to sailing out into the deep waters with all of you.