A Community of Learning

Remarks by  Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Groundbreaking of Yale-NUS College
University Town, National University of Singapore
6 July 2012


Your Excellency Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

Your Excellency Ambassador David Adelman

NUS Chairman Mr Wong Ngit Liong

Yale-NUS Chair Mdm Kay Kuok

NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan

Yale President Professor Richard Levin

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen:

Today, we break ground on the buildings for Yale-NUS College.  As we do so, we are symbolically laying the foundation for an inspiring and innovative community of learning.  I would like to share with you today our vision of what this new community can become.

Before I do so, I would like to express deep gratitude to Prime Minister Lee and the government of Singapore for their unwavering support of this exciting educational partnership between Yale and the National University of Singapore.  The government’s commitment to the ideal of a liberal arts education has allowed us to make excellent progress and will permit us to add a distinctive and important new element to the educational landscape in Singapore and in Asia.

We are also honored to have with us Ambassador Adelman.  The Yale-NUS partnership symbolizes the ties not only between West and East more broadly but more specifically between the peoples of the United States and of Singapore, and we are delighted to be deepening those ties today.

The first residential colleges were constructed at Oxford in the 13th century for students at the university there (and I realize that Prime Minister Lee attended another ancient college, Trinity at Cambridge, which was founded in the 16th century). The father of English poetry, Chaucer, paints a famous picture of a student at Oxford around that time, who wears a threadbare cloak, rides an emaciated horse, and is rather underfed himself. So dedicated is the student to learning that when he gets some money from his friends, he spends it not on fine clothes, or a new horse, or even food for himself, but on books about Aristotle.  And Chaucer concludes this unforgettable portrait of the Oxford student by saying “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

Well, we intend for our students to be reasonably well-clothed and well-fed, but the essential character of college life is not just the attention we pay to the needs of the body but also the sense of a group of friends and classmates who learn together and who teach one another. This is what social scientists call the “peer effect,” and it is something professors sometimes neglect to acknowledge, namely that students can—in the right environment—learn as much from their interactions with each other in student societies and team sports, and from those late-night conversations over tea and a snack, as they do from their formal course work.

The model of a community of learning, in which living and learning are intertwined, informs the traditions and values of our founding institutions. Yale College opened in 1701 with just seven students, and for most of its history most students lived on campus.  Likewise, one of the original institutions that would eventually make up the National University of Singapore was Raffles College, which began at Bukit Timah in 1928 with just 43 students, who lived in nearby hostels.

Around the time that Raffles College was founded, due to the great generosity of one of Yale’s most memorable benefactors, Edward Harkness, Yale, which had grown substantially, was able to construct the first eight of its beautiful residential colleges. The new colleges made possible a concept that we have come to call “nested communities.”  Within the larger group of Yale undergraduates, students today belong to a number of smaller communities, notably the group of 400 students in their own college, the smaller group of around 40 in their own neighborhood within the college, and the even more intimate group of four to eight suitemates.  These nested communities give Yale students strong bonds to their peer groups.

Yale copied the architecture of Oxford and Cambridge, but it also made two distinctive contributions to the idea of a residential college.  The first was that Yale had been, since the nineteenth century, a leader in the development of extra-curricular activities, or what we today call the “co-curriculum,” namely the sports, clubs, societies, musical groups, and student publications that create a lively civil society in parallel with the official curriculum taught by the professors.  These are supplemented by formal events such as master’s teas organized by faculty who live in the colleges with the students.

Secondly, after some experiments with letting students choose their own college, Yale recognized the value of deliberately making each residential college a microcosm of Yale College itself, containing a diversity of talents and backgrounds.  Studies have found that having a roommate from a different background or a different country significantly improves the learning experience of a typical undergraduate.  Friendships formed with people unlike oneself blossom later in life into a cosmopolitan outlook that can be inculcated more successfully through informal contacts than through formal lectures on tolerance.

The National University of Singapore has itself been introducing a diversity of housing types and learning communities, notably in University Town and through the University Scholars Programme.  We are proud now to be creating a liberal arts college that will meld the traditions of Yale and of NUS and that will house a community of learning.

We are very fortunate to have two world-class architectural firms committed to creating a distinctive residential and educational space for this unique partnership:  Forum Architects, represented by Mr. Tan Kok Hiang and Mr. Wong Chin Wah, and Pelli Clarke Pelli, represented here by Fred Clarke and Mariko Masuoko.

The design of Yale-NUS College seeks to find an architecture which balances eastern and western contexts and traditions, but it has, in truth, created something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. Courtyards punctuated by towers set in lush landscapes, a close community of learning and social spaces, and a clear and inviting set of processional entrances, match the openness, energy, and optimism of the curriculum we are designing. Much like its educational mission, the architecture of Yale-NUS, while keenly aware of its antecedents, is strongly committed to the ideas and responsibilities of this century and, in this way, is also a vision for the future.

Thus, the campus itself will contribute powerfully to achieving the College’s educational mission.  The classrooms and laboratories are designed to foster active learning in the liberal arts and sciences.  The melding of East and West reflects our global curriculum.  The residential colleges, with their common rooms, dining halls, and sky gardens, encourage the ambitious linkage of living and learning.  Gladly will we learn and gladly teach.

I would like to close with a quotation from Mahatma Gandhi that I think captures our goal of bringing East and West together in a powerful and profound dialogue.  Although he is speaking of his house metaphorically, I think we can see Yale-NUS College as the kind of house that he describes.  Asked about the relevance of the study of English literature for Indians, he encouraged his people to study both English and their native languages.  He wrote:

“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

May the cultures of Asia, the West, and the entire world blow freely through the buildings of Yale-NUS College and into the minds of many generations of students.  And may we send those students into the world standing proudly on their own feet.

Finally, I would like to once again thank Prime Minister Lee for gracing this occasion. Your presence here today, sir, makes this event particularly special.