Symposium on International Liberal Education: A Community of Learning

Welcome Remarks by Founding President Pericles Lewis, Yale-NUS College
at the Inaugural Symposium for International Liberal Education
11 October 2015

A Community of Learning

University and college leaders,

Faculty and staff of NUS, Yale, and Yale-NUS,

Distinguished Guests,


Welcome to Yale-NUS College’s Inaugural Symposium on International Liberal Education. Tomorrow we officially open our wonderful new campus at University Town. Today, we have an opportunity to reflect on the founding of Yale-NUS College and its relation to developments in liberal arts education and international education more broadly. We are honoured to be joined by Presidents, Vice-Chancellors, Deans and other leaders of over 30 important sister colleges and universities from around the world. We are also delighted to welcome trustees of both the National University of Singapore and Yale University who have shown their support for our undertaking and now have an opportunity to see it up close.

Liberal arts education has a long history both in Asia and the West. I would like to speak briefly about that history in order to illuminate the way that Yale-NUS embodies some dynamic tensions: between Asia and the West, of course, but also between tradition and modernity, between a classical education and preparedness for the modern world, and between the traditional liberal arts college and the modern research university. These tensions have defined my job for the last three years—as I am sure they shape the work that so many of you are doing. But I think the dynamism of Yale-NUS College is largely a result of our ability to keep such tensions in play and stay nimble in responding to our environment. We are a unique institution in part because we resist simple choices.

Since classical times in the West, a liberal education has been understood to be the type of learning appropriate for a free citizen. In the ancient world, of course, these citizens were exclusively male and often held slaves, so we should not overlook the aristocratic origins of Western notions of liberal arts. Nonetheless, over time, and notably in the early days of the American republic, liberal arts also became part of an education for democratic citizenship, and even earlier education has always had an element of meritocracy or democracy about it, insofar as it allowed the most talented to rise regardless of rank and connections. This was the motivation behind the great Asian examination systems, and we should not forget that Asia had its own forms of liberal arts education.

For example, the seven liberal arts of medieval Europe comprised the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). No doubt, even in the Middle Ages, learned professors would argue about whether there was too much emphasis on the trivium or the quadrivium in the curriculum, and no doubt even then university administrators had a hard time getting the faculty to agree on curricular reforms.

In China, from the time of Confucius onwards, the six arts that defined a gentleman were rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy and mathematics. Notably there is considerable overlap with the West, although the Chinese seem to have prized military accomplishments more highly. In both Asia and the West, what we today think of as sciences were part of the liberal arts from the beginning.

We at Yale-NUS draw on the great traditions of both Asia and the West, and while we do not offer courses on charioteering, our ideal of forming a well-rounded person capable of taking on challenges from multiple perspectives would be recognisable to educators of earlier generations in Asia and the West. Nonetheless, these traditions have been very broadly transformed by the forces we label ‘modernity’.

The British East India Company played an important if rather indirect role in the history of Yale-NUS College. Elihu Yale was born in Boston on April 5th, 1649. He began employment with the East India Company in 1671, and by 1687 had worked himself up to the position of governor of Fort Saint George, the East India Company’s headquarters at Madras. In 1718, the colonial clergymen of a small college in New Haven sold Yale’s gifts of East Indian textiles, books and a portrait of George I for 800 pounds to provide the funds for the construction of the college’s first building. They christened the fledgling school Yale College in his honour.

It is well known that the inhabitants of the city-state we now call Singapore have, over the centuries, repeatedly reinvented themselves. From the 14th century onwards, they regulated trade passing through the straits of Malacca. About a century after Elihu Yale’s gift to support a new college, Sir Stamford Raffles, who had risen from the position of clerk in the East India Company to that of Governor-General of Bencoolen, arrived here and established the free port of Singapore. It was Singapore’s influential position as a major centre of finance and trade that enabled the founding of the precursors to NUS: in 1905, the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States Government Medical School, and in 1928 Raffles College. Yale-NUS is thus the descendant of two colleges named after East India Company administrators.

I relate these stories to suggest that the process of globalisation which we witness every day on the front pages of our newspapers or in our news feeds has in fact been going on for a very long time. But how has the rise of global modernity affected the nature of education in the liberal arts and sciences?

First, I think it has broken up the consensus in both Asia and the West about what every educated person needs to know. Yale College offered a unified common curriculum, not unlike ours today, well into the 19th century. It featured Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, geography, astronomy and (an innovation) English. In the final year of college, students took a course in moral philosophy taught by the college president. There was little opportunity for specialisation. This was the typical liberal arts college of 19th-century New England. Now the growth of scientific knowledge, the Industrial Revolution, and the expansion of American commerce led to demands for education that was not only more practical but also more diverse, and eventually Yale dropped the requirement that everyone must study Latin and Greek and started to allow students to choose most of their own courses and to major in a specific discipline. This was part and parcel of its development into a modern research university.

Although I am sometimes nostalgic for the days when the college president taught every student moral philosophy, I think that the purpose of our Common Curriculum is quite different from that of 19th-century Yale College. We have asked the question “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” Our Common Curriculum is our answer to that question, for this time and place, and we recognise that the answer in a different college might be different. But more importantly, we expect that our students will specialise—we just want them to specialise a year or two later than they do elsewhere. Specifically, we are trying to reset the balance between the disciplines that were mostly founded in the 19th century and that are the central organising principle of most modern research universities, and the broad learning that we think, even today, will form the best basis for a student’s future encounters with the world.

Taking my own field of comparative literature as an example, I certainly think that comparative literature teaches students valuable skills, in writing, communication, cultural understanding, and analysis, but how much stronger will those skills be, and how much more capable of facing challenges will our future graduates be, if the study of comparative literature is combined with some knowledge of history, of statistical methods, of social problems, and of the nature of scientific inquiry. We do not therefore propose to scrap specialised knowledge but we do hope to give students the broad general knowledge that will allow them to become something other than specialists in one 19th-century discipline or another. And likewise we have designed our majors, which are the focus of the students’ final two years of study, around subjects that are generally broader than any single discipline.

To turn from history and literature to philosophy, let me now just briefly state the philosophy of Yale-NUS College, something I will also discuss at tomorrow’s inauguration. Our vision statement, crafted by the inaugural faculty and staff three years ago, states that we are “A Community of Learning, Founded by two great universities, In Asia, for the world.” As was already apparent when we chose those words, there are a number of productive tensions built into our existence. We are a small college, an intimate community, but we are born of two great universities. Our faculty are internationally recognised researchers as well as dedicated teachers. We are in Asia, and more specifically in Singapore, but it is our ambition to educate citizens of the world. What better place to attempt this than this remarkable and cosmopolitan city.

One of my colleagues, visiting from Yale, invoked the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s notion of ‘collective effervescence’ to describe what happens at Yale-NUS, and I would like to pursue that concept briefly today to explain what we are trying to accomplish here. Durkheim’s phrase, which he applied to the founding moments of various communities, refers for us to the sense that we are working together in a moment of founding the institution and that therefore we can realize possibilities that would be hard to undertake in an older, more established college.

We have tried many new things in the past three years. To some extent, bringing a four-year residential liberal arts model to Singapore would seem to be innovation enough. But we have also undertaken other innovations: the Common Curriculum I have just described, team-based learning, experiential programmes called Learning Across Boundaries in which our students fan out across the region and the world to do fieldwork supervised by a faculty member, faculty recruitment workshops, mystery internships, new forms of student association, a student government constitution written by the students that is run by a collective rather than having a single leader, interdisciplinary research clusters, courses co-taught in New Haven and Singapore, writers’ festivals, an NGO bootcamp and a business bootcamp, new approaches to mental healthcare for students, celebrations and English lessons for the workers who have built our campus, the largest model United Nations programme in Southeast Asia, summer research internships, new student publications, partnerships with many leading colleges and universities around the world. Not all of these efforts will succeed, but our approach has been to try good ideas and to stay committed to inculcating our spirit of innovation.

The collection of Confucius’s remarks known to us as the Analects begins with a statement about learning that has become very famous:

“Is it not a pleasure to learn and, when it is timely, to practise what you have learned? Is it not a joy to have friends coming from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to become resentful if no one takes notice of your learning?”

May I say what a pleasure it is to have friends from so far afield? I look forward to learning from you and hope we will all have the chance, when returning to our campuses, to put what we have learned into practice.

In a few moments we will discuss at greater length the history of this venture, and the role of NUS and of Yale in founding this College. Thereafter we will learn from some prominent leaders of colleges and universities about the work they are doing in the field of international liberal education. I look forward to this afternoon’s conversations and to tomorrow’s ceremony. Thank you all very much for being here.