Collective Effervescence

Speech by Professor Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
First Year Assembly 2014
University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore
5 August 2014

Governing Board Chairperson Madam Kay Kuok,

National University of Singapore President Tan Chorh Chuan,

National University of Singapore Provost Tan Eng Chye,

Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway,

Governing Board members, Yale-NUS colleagues, Students, Friends:

Our brand new gowns and the pomp of our first-year assembly remind me of a passage in William Wordsworth’s poem “The Prelude” about his first arrival at St. John’s College of Cambridge University. Perhaps some of our students are feeling the way Wordsworth did in his first month of college as he looked around at his classmates, recognizing a few from his home county in the north of England and getting to know others quickly:

“My Spirit was up, my thoughts were full of hope;
Some friends I had, acquaintances who there
Seemed friends, poor simple School-boys! Now hung round
With honor and importance: in a world
Of welcome faces up and down I roved;
Questions, directions, warnings, and advice
Flowed in upon me, from all sides; fresh day
Of pride and pleasure!”

I am sure that you, our students, have already received plenty of questions and advice from the Dean’s Fellows, the sophomores, your faculty advisers, and your classmates. I hope that you all feel great pride and pleasure in joining Yale-NUS College. Perhaps, like Wordsworth, you feel that your whole experience of college so far is a kind of dream. Writing of the other inhabitants of Cambridge, Wordsworth wrote:

I was the Dreamer, they the dream: I roamed
Delighted through the motley spectacle;
Gowns grave or gaudy, Doctors, Students, Streets,
Courts, Cloisters, flocks of Churches, gateways, towers.

And even if our own courtyards and cloisters, gateways and towers will not be ready for a few months yet, I am sure that the varied streets of Singapore provide a remarkable spectacle for all of you who have come from abroad. And even those who grew up in Singapore may feel, like Wordsworth, that you have been suddenly transformed from children to men and women.

In 1787, when Wordsworth arrived in Cambridge, St John’s College was already 376 years old. Yale-NUS College, by contrast, has only recently celebrated its first birthday. Yet, entering the College means becoming part of a tradition. Most obviously, you are joining the traditions of the National University of Singapore, which is 109 years old, and Yale University, which is 313 years old. But more immediately, you are joining and will be helping to shape the new traditions of a community of learning founded by these two great universities.

I would like to speak today about the combination of tradition and innovation that we are developing here at Yale-NUS and to suggest some of the ways that you can help us to find the right combination of these two forces as we build this institution.

Colleges are to some extent conservative institutions. In many respects, they have not changed very much since the founding of Cambridge and Oxford in the middle ages. They are small communities, in which students and teachers live in close proximity, sharing facilities like a dining hall, a library, arts spaces, and (nowadays) science and computer labs. They rely on tradition to pass on their identity: it is sometimes said that once something at a college has happened twice, it becomes a tradition. Even these brand-new academic gowns would probably not look too out of place in medieval Cambridge.

More importantly, a major part of the role of a college that educates undergraduates is to preserve and transmit knowledge, and while knowledge can be progressive or radical, the job of preserving and transmitting it is fundamentally about conserving important aspects of the past.

But we are building a new college and we are building it in an age that has been described as one of “disruptive innovation”. Some critics have suggested that colleges will become as obsolete as brick-and-mortar bookstores or travel agencies. I believe that colleges remain essential institutions and that a number of transformations in our global community create new opportunities for Yale-NUS as an innovative college. I hope that you, our students, can join us as we build a college that takes advantage of these opportunities and become a part of the tradition of innovation here at Yale-NUS.

There are several opportunities in today’s world that make possible the founding of a college like Yale-NUS. We really could not have founded this College 25 years ago when I was an undergraduate. The information and communications revolution make possible the collaboration between two universities on opposite ends of the world, Yale and NUS. They also make it possible for those of you from 40 different countries to have learned a great deal about the College even before you applied and were interviewed for admission via Skype. They will allow you to keep in touch with your family and friends while you are here. The fact that travel has become relatively less expensive makes much of our international network possible—in some ways the travel even from another continent to Singapore is shorter than the trip Wordsworth took from Northern England to Cambridge (although I realize that the 24 hours of air travel from New Haven probably still seemed like a long trip to Dean Holloway, the new Dean of Yale College!).

Our curriculum is designed around the understanding that, in this new context, information and data are constantly available in huge quantities; the skills we hope to teach you involve discerning how to make the best use of that information and data and to ask questions of a deeper type that go beyond what is readily available on the internet. We therefore focus very little on rote learning and much more on active engagement and interpretation, aspects of education that are best delivered in small classes and in discussions outside formal class time.

You will discover in your own classrooms and residential colleges both the values you share with others here and the ways in which you will challenge each other’s values.

Of course, the fact that everyone here speaks English well is another effect of globalisation that makes the College possible, but I do want to emphasise the importance of learning other languages in order to have a better understanding of other cultures and ways of seeing the world. We live in a world that has become more integrated by shared language, technology, infrastructure, and culture.

Many of you visited the College a few months ago as part of our “Experience Yale-NUS Weekends”. A colleague who visited from New Haven at the same time commented on a feeling of “collective effervescence” at Yale-NUS, the sense that we are working together in a moment of founding the institution and that therefore we can realise possibilities that would be hard to undertake in an older, more established college. My colleague was referring to a concept articulated by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. Similarly, the sociologist Max Weber spoke of the moments of “charisma” in the founding of institutions when anything seems possible and conventional ways of doing things are swept aside. Weber recognized that the great challenge of making a successful institution lies not just in the excitement of doing things for the first time, but in the process of making the institution durable. Weber called this “Veralltäglichung”, making every day. How do we take our effervescence and enthusiasm and them a lasting and permanent part of our college culture?

You have probably all heard about some of the innovations of the past year that are on the verge of becoming traditions: learning across boundaries, Week Seven, Halloween haunted houses, clubs like the Yale-NUS International Relations and Political Association or the Society of Yale-NUS College Dancers; mystery internships; our excellent Common Curriculum classes; symposia in philosophy and political thought; scientific inquiry poster sessions; summer research fellowships. And this year, there will be many firsts: tomorrow, you will go on our first orientation trips in Southeast Asia; soon, you will found our student government; you will move into residential colleges; you will create new clubs and teams; you will take new classes from new professors; and by next year, you will fill our new studios with music and art. Innovation is part of the mandate of our faculty as well, both in their development of a distinctive curriculum and pedagogy, and in their research which helps to expand the frontiers of knowledge. On the basis of a very old tradition of faculty-student interaction in a residential college, we are finding new opportunities for growth and learning.

The first time we make a possibility into a reality, it is an experiment. The second time we do so, it is a tradition. There are plenty of new experiments for all of us to undertake together this year, and even more traditions to shape, renew, and transform. I invite all of you to help us to build this new, experimental world, and to decide which parts of it we should make enduring for future generations of Yale-NUS students. I invite you to make collective effervescence part of the everyday experience of life at Yale-NUS. I invite you to help us build a new and a lasting institution. I welcome you to Yale-NUS College!