Education and Politics

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
First Year Assembly 2016
5 August 2016 at Yale-NUS College

Governing Board Chairperson Madam Kay Kuok,

National University of Singapore President Tan Chorh Chuan,

Students, friends, colleagues:

Our theme for our first-year assembly this year is that Yale-NUS is home, and I would like to start by saying to all of our first-year students: welcome home.

We do want Yale-NUS to be your home for the coming four years. Students who have been with us for one to three years are eager to welcome you at tonight’s candle-lighting ceremony. Our faculty look forward to engaging with you in the classroom, in office hours, and in the dining hall. You have already met many of our student-life and other professionals who want to help you shape your time here and indeed help you think about how your education will fit into your broader goals and purposes in life.  All of us want you to feel at home here on this magnificent campus and in this community.

At the same time, I want to emphasize a slightly different theme, which is that even though we think of Yale-NUS as a second home, we do not expect this home always to be comfortable.  Just as in any family, disagreements may arise.  And living with an extended family of students, faculty, and staff from over 50 different countries, with a wide range of experiences, views, and customs, you may sometimes find yourself outside what we have learned to call “your comfort zone.”  This is not a bad thing.

An important part of education is being exposed to views and ideas and even ways of life that challenge your preconceptions.  This does not mean that you need to take on board every idea that your professors or fellow students propose to you.  It is your job to approach the new ideas you will encounter with an open mind, weigh these new perspectives and arguments, and come to your own conclusions about matters of great importance for you and your future.

Of course, some types of learning admit of more debate than others.  It is unlikely that in your first year you will disprove any major accepted scientific theories.  But even though science is a complex set of theorems and processes that takes a long time to master, it is also indeed a process—to which you can all contribute. In time, if you pursue science to the highest levels, you may make distinctive contributions and perhaps even introduce new perspectives that change what we think we know about the natural world. I encourage those of you with a scientific bent—or who discover a scientific bent you didn’t know you had—to work with a faculty member as a research assistant in a lab or in the field and try your hand at the expansion of knowledge.

In my own field of literature, the situation is somewhat different. Many people feel that judgments about literature, or aesthetic judgments in general, are primarily subjective, and therefore that any one person’s opinion is as valid as any other. The reality is more complex than that.  Your professors, and other experts, have knowledge and understanding of distinctive features of aesthetic experience—whether these are literary or musical structures, historical context, or nuances of language or artistic technique—that specially qualify them to teach in these fields.

At the same time, it is undeniable that in the humanities the subjective element is extremely important and, partly as a result, they are a particularly fruitful area for the first stages of liberal education.  Each student—each reader, listener, or viewer—brings his or her own experiences to the work of art, and those subjective experiences are a valid and important criterion for judging the works you will encounter.  In a good humanities seminar, you will have the opportunity to test your own experiences and responses against those of your classmates and professors and thus to learn about the intersubjective nature of humanistic truth.

Between the humanities and the sciences lies a vast area of intellectual and human endeavor in which questions of agreement and disagreement can be particularly vexed.  I am thinking primarily of politics, but to some extent other social sciences like economics, psychology, and sociology, or humanities like philosophy or religious studies, share some of the characteristics of politics.  Here people’s convictions about justice and about their place in the world are central to the subject of study. And therefore when it comes to the social and political world sometimes the conflicts can be particularly intractable and lead to disputes not only in the classroom but also in the halls of the college, or on the internet, or in the broader world.

I hope that you will engage in debates and discussions about political and social matters. A liberal education has traditionally, since ancient times, meant an education appropriate for free citizens.  This does not imply that everyone with a liberal education will come out on a particular side of political matters—liberal, conservative, socialist, or what have you.  But it does imply that one of the goals of your education is to make you more thoughtful contributors to society, people who can engage in reasoned discourse with others about the way you want your nation or the global community to develop. We want you to develop into active and thoughtful citizens.

Unfortunately, in the world around us, it is impossible to ignore the signs of intolerance in much of public discourse. The forces of aggressive nationalism, fundamentalism, and division seem to be on the ascendant in many political systems—and we have all wearied of the terrible violence we have seen throughout the world in the past year.

Yale-NUS can do but little directly to counteract these forces, but I remind you of a part of our mission statement, “in Asia, for the world.” We hope that during your time here you will take on that broader, global perspective and work for change, whether in your own communities or internationally, in order to build a society that is more just and above all more peaceful.  Each of us will have our own ideas about how to attain this goal, but I think we all share a view that justice and peace are important underpinnings of any future world that you, our students, would like to inherit and would want to build for future generations.

In doing so, I hope you will keep in mind the importance of respect and tolerance for the views of others.  Sometimes we become so convinced of the justice or righteousness of our own views that we risk unnecessarily trampling the feelings of others or, more insidiously, creating an aura of soft censorship in which people feel unfree to express dissenting views.  A Yale-NUS education should allow for an unfettered and respectful exchange of views.

A related challenge for students is the desire to see the world remade right away.  This comes from an admirable place—the thirst for justice makes some young people impatient.  But for the most part, except in cases of extreme injustice, progress comes gradually.  Almost a century ago, at the end of the first world war and in the context of the abortive revolutions of 1918, the German sociologist Max Weber said in his lecture on “Politics as a Vocation,” that “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”  In other words, you can work for change but you cannot be sure that the change you are seeking will come quickly or that once it comes it will resemble what you thought you were campaigning for.

A more recent political thinker, Michael Oakeshott, in his lecture of 1951 on “Political Education,” offers a complementary metaphor for politics, drawing on the ancient image of the ship of state:

“In political activity, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behavior in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

It seems to me that this passage, which describes political life, is also highly relevant to your college education.  You are setting out on a journey.  None of us knows exactly where it will end.  Unlike Oakeshott, I am enough of an optimist to believe that it will end well, and I hope that you are all optimistic as well.  But I cannot tell you exactly which way to steer.  We will provide you with some of the equipment and techniques to keep afloat, and we will certainly provide support if you ever feel that you are out of your depths; we will hope for smooth sailing, but ultimately in words from a Victorian poet, “you are the master of your fate, you are the captain of your soul.” That is what a liberal education is all about.

Thank you.