In Asia, for the World: The Creation of Yale-NUS College

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Symposium on Globalising the Liberal Arts
6 June 2016
The Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center, Yale University


I’m delighted to have the opportunity to address this symposium today on the creation of Yale-NUS College. Those of you who know me may be aware that I am working on a magnum opus, The History of Yale-NUS College, tentatively scheduled for publication at the 25th reunion of our first graduating class in May, 2042. That work, which is already starting to resemble the Encyclopedia of Tlön in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius,” will contain irrefutable answers to questions that may or may not have occurred to you about the reasons and negotiations behind the founding of Yale-NUS College and about a variety of adventures along the way, along with my candid opinions about colleagues, donors, and government officials alike. Today, my scope is more modest, as I would like to focus on the history of the Yale-NUS College Curriculum and some of the challenges and opportunities involved in creating it. What I hope you can take away from it is that the process of thinking through a curriculum and its design can be a unifying experience for a faculty even though it requires a great deal of negotiation and compromise.

I. Kronman memo

Plans for Yale-NUS College were developed in 2009 by three faculty committees at Yale, who met with counterparts from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in November 2009. One committee—chaired by A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Physics and Astronomy Charles Bailyn, who later became the inaugural Dean of Faculty at Yale-NUS, and Provost Peter Salovey, who is now Yale’s President—dealt with recruitment and development of faculty. Another, chaired by East Asian Languages and Literatures Professor Ed Kamens and Yale Vice-President Linda Lorimer, addressed residential life and the co-curriculum, including admissions and the physical campus. The third, chaired by former Dean of the Yale Law School and Sterling Professor of Law Anthony Kronman and Professor of Comparative Literature Haun Saussy, dealt with the curriculum. Tony Kronman and I have known each other for a long time, and I am an admirer of his book Education’s End. We have also both taught in Yale’s Directed Studies programme, an intensive study of Western civilisation taken by about 10 percent of Yale’s freshmen, while Haun and I were colleagues in Comparative Literature, and I had been involved in recruiting him to Yale; unfortunately, he has since left us for the University of Chicago.

My own background in administration at Yale before 2009 had mostly to do with curriculum development: I was Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Literature Major, Director of Graduate Studies for the Comparative Literature department, and Chair of Yale College’s Committee on Majors. So when I became involved in planning for Yale-NUS in the spring of 2010, I was particularly interested in the curricular aspect of this experiment.  (As it turns out, of course, as President, I have spent much more time on faculty recruitment, student admissions, the physical campus, and residential and extracurricular life, but what got me involved in the first place was the curriculum).

To compare the initial report, written in 2009, on the prospects for a curriculum at the as yet unnamed liberal arts college in Singapore with what we have in fact produced shows a great deal of continuity and a number of contrasts.

The similarities include:

  • An emphasis on active learning in small seminars.
  • An encouragement of student research pervading the curriculum.
  • A focus on teaching students to communicate effectively.
  • A high value placed on the college as a community.
  • A preference for a more cohesive form of education as opposed to the more fragmented approach that, the committee implied, attaches to the elective and distribution systems common in liberal arts colleges and leading universities in the United States.

Crucially, the committee proposed that “the first two years of the [Liberal Arts College] programme should be heavily weighted toward a required core curriculum that gives all the students in the college a common educational foundation on which to build their more specialised work in the junior and senior years.” This idea of a required core curriculum, somewhat reminiscent of the structure of undergraduate education at Columbia or the University of Chicago, also has deep roots in the structure of American education. Of the leading colleges in the 19th century, Yale clung longer than most to its original common curriculum, which changed only slowly over the course of the nineteenth century. The Yale reports of 1828 in fact gave one of the most comprehensive defenses of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. The nineteenth-century curriculum featured Latin, Greek, mathematics, history, geography, astronomy and (an innovation introduced under Ezra Stiles) English.  In the final year of College, students took a course in moral philosophy taught by the College President.

The central decision to have what was then called a “core” curriculum and what we now call our “common curriculum” led to the creation of an essential hallmark of Yale-NUS College as it eventually developed. The differences between what we have in fact created and what the committee originally proposed are in the scheme of things relatively minor:

  • The committee proposed a sequence of ten courses in the humanities and sciences in the first two years “us[ing] materials drawn from the civilisations of Asia and the West.”
  • The first six courses in these sequences closely resembled Directed Studies at Yale, that is, three two-semester sequences, one on literature and the arts, one on philosophy, and one on social and political life. The difference, of course, was in the use of Asian as well as Western materials, and the committee recognised that this would mean that the approach would likely be more thematic and less chronological than that of Directed Studies.
  • The next four courses were to involve more in-depth study of specific cultural traditions and were to be selected from a menu of courses.
  • In addition, students were to choose between a two-semester course in “Foundations of Science” (essentially intended for students who did not plan to major in science) or a two-semester sequence introducing one of physics, chemistry, or biology. Notably, math and computer science are not mentioned in the document.
  • The thirteenth required course would cover “Current Issues in Science.”

I realise that many of you are not initiates of the past six and a half years of curricular debates, but I can say that the major differences between the proposal outlined in this report and our current curriculum are the following:

  • The original report, let us call it the Kronman memo, focuses primarily on books. There is little discussion of the methods of the social sciences or of quantitative reasoning, which turned out to be the subject of two of our most significant courses, comparative social institutions and quantitative reasoning. (Another, modern social thought, is more a spin-off of the great books approach).
  • We did in fact wind up requiring thirteen courses for some students (12 for others), although we have recently reduced this to ten courses.
  • The Kronman memo emphasises deeper engagement with various cultural traditions through courses in sophomore year, whereas we have given the students a good deal more freedom to select courses relevant to their potential majors in their sophomore year. To make up for the absence of these deeper historical courses, we require students to take a single course in historical immersion, usually in their junior year.
  • The history of our science requirement is quite complex and will likely be addressed in panels later in the next two days.

The other most important difference in the initial plans, I think, concerned the plan to rely quite heavily on offerings in various departments of the Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences and of Science at NUS for a fairly large fraction of the courses students would take in their junior and senior years.  Although we do in fact have students take courses at NUS, the vast majority of their courses in their majors are taught at Yale-NUS.

The committee also offered a variety of ideas for college-wide activities and the design of majors, some of which have come to fruition while others have been replaced by ideas that came up later in the history of the college and ultimately have shaped the college’s distinctive identity in important ways.

An example of one of these programmes that was conceived later on is our week 7 learning across boundaries programme in which all classes for freshmen break for an extra week in mid-semester while faculty lead small groups of students around Singapore and the region, and sometimes farther afield, in a more in-depth field study on matters connected with the expertise of the faculty member, such as biodiversity or housing development in Singapore, tsunami recovery or the legacy of Hindu culture in Indonesia, alternative fuel sources in Malaysia, the effect of urbanisation on villages in central China, or the western classical legacy in Greece or Rome. While the focus of this conference is on the curriculum, I think that in fact engagement with this kind of co-curricular activity is one of the most distinctive features of a Yale-NUS education and something I hope other colleges and universities might consider emulating.

II. Working out the practicalities

The plans for curriculum did not change much in the following year as negotiations over a variety of matters proceeded and eventually an agreement to found Yale-NUS College was signed in March 2011. As an aside, it was in summer 2010 that I became involved as a member and later chair of the committee tasked with hiring the initial faculty in the humanities. I also spent a good part of two academic years, from 2010 to 2012, discussing with colleagues from across Yale the desirability of opening a college in Singapore.  Those discussions are documented in the Yale Daily News and to some extent in other newspapers of record and are the subject of a different chapter of the History of Yale-NUS.  All I will say about them at the moment is that I have always thought that the expansion of liberal education in Singapore was desirable for educational and broader social reasons; I, like other colleagues at Yale, did a lot of due diligence about what conditions in Singapore were really like before signing on to the programme; and my subsequent experiences have confirmed for me that Singapore is an excellent host and sponsor for this rather bold experiment with liberal education in Asia.

In the spring of 2011, Charles and I, working closely with NUS Vice-President Lily Kong (who is now Provost of Singapore Management University) and Yale Sociology Professor Deborah Davis, who chaired the search for social science faculty, developed a number of specific models for how to arrange courses to fulfill most of the goals of the Kronman memo. In August 2011, I went so far as to write out the syllabus of a four-semester sequence in the humanities that I now see was much more ambitious in terms of the number of texts covered than would be appropriate, even if we had decided to dedicate eight semester-long courses to what came to be called the “Great Works” section of the curriculum. In fact, it looks a lot like a reading list for a qualifying exam for a PhD in comparative literature and philosophy.

There were more or less weekly emails proposing a variety of sequences, and finally on 30 August 2011, we arrived at the structure that we in fact wound up using for the College’s first three years, 2013-2016. One of the lessons we have continually had to re-learn is about the need to be selective. Ventures like ours have an encyclopedic ambition, but even a year or two of a student’s life leaves time for only so many books, problem sets, and field trips. Even when a college is highly selective, the aptitudes of the students are not evenly distributed, and a common curriculum involves a challenge of addressing these various aptitudes, especially when the curriculum is as ambitious as ours in addressing the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.

III. The rhetoric of the common curriculum

Rather than examine the place of each course on the curriculum chart, which you will learn more about over the next two days, I would like to call attention to a couple of decisions my colleagues and I made in the course of 2011 and 2012 that have had some influence on how we think about the Yale-NUS curriculum. These decisions are mostly of the rhetorical type, but as a college president, it is my professional opinion that when a distinguished group of educators like the one assembled here gets together it makes sense to spend some time thinking about the rhetoric of the enterprise.

It was in the summer of 2011 that I had my greatest influence on the actual content of the curriculum, through the conversations I have just discussed about sequencing and by writing a document about our plans for the curriculum that was then shared with all job candidates at a sequence of faculty recruitment workshops that began in the fall of 2011, but as time went on, I became less involved in the practicalities of the curriculum and more in explaining its importance to a variety of audiences, namely faculty and students we were recruiting, faculty and board members here at Yale and at NUS, and ultimately Yale and NUS alumni, donors, and foundations.

The first important point here was that we dropped the term “core curriculum.” In the early documents, such as the Kronman memo, there was always a reference to a core curriculum. By the summer of 2011, we frequently referred to a “common ‘core’ curriculum” with the word “core” in quotes. But we noted that many colleagues in the humanities objected to the notion of a core curriculum, which seemed to imply, in the language of Yale sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, the existence of a periphery.

There are legitimate questions about whether a core or common curriculum is the right way to educate young people. I think it is the right approach at Yale-NUS because it creates unity of experience among a very diverse group of 250 students per year from over 40 different countries and because, being very selective, we can count on students’ ability to manage the challenges of the common curriculum. So the diversity, the small size, and the selectivity make this approach feasible. It also helps that we do not assign recorded grades in the first semester so students have some time to adjust to the rigours of college, an approach I think we should consider extending to the second semester as well.

Some of our colleagues also diagreed back against my emphasis on the “Great Works” as the title of the humanities sequence in the curriculum.  I stood by Great Works, although we don’t use the phrase much anymore, because I felt that students would respond better to being assigned “great works” to read or analyse rather than just “texts” (as an earlier draft had it).  But after much discussion with Charles and Deborah, I recognised that whether the common core curriculum was called “common” or a “core” was not crucial to its efficacy, and I acquiesced in dropping the word core and referring thenceforth to the common curriculum, with its intimations of community, the human condition, and the common good.  As we have seen in the realm of K-12 education, the debate over “common core” is often guided not so much by pedagogical arguments but by rhetoric.

On the matter of great works, I would also like to mention that we have always emphasised reading a relatively small number of works in full or at least in large selections rather than the “anthology” approach.  I am an editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature (which, among anthologies, also prefers to print full works where possible), but I think that for this kind of course it is better to spend more time on each of a relatively small number of important texts rather than trying to get through small excerpts of more works.  This is not something my philosophy colleagues entirely agree with, I’ve noticed.

My second, more positive contribution to the rhetoric of the common curriculum was to try to express its purpose. In August 2011, I summarised it as follows: “Our curriculum is driven by one central question: what does every educated person need to learn in order to contribute effectively to a modern society, culture, and economy, and to live a fulfilled life?”  By the time I became President of the College, a year later, I had learned something about the importance of concision, and I rewrote this sentence as “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?”

Because I am a literature professor by vocation and concerned with the value of words, please indulge me in saying something about the later formulation:

  • I dropped the phrase “every educated person” because of its class overtones and implications of haughty superiority and replaced it with “young person” in order to appeal to hope and youthfulness.
  • I replaced “what does a young person need to learn” with “what must a young person learn” because I felt that “must” had an ethical overtone lacking from “need to,” which sounds utilitarian or even deterministic.
  • Even in the first formulation, I chose “learn” over “know” because the point is not the passive possession of some set of facts but the active process of learning.
  • I replaced the list of society, culture, economy, and fulfilled life with the much simpler “lead a responsible life.” Casey Nagy, director of my office, gets credit for the word “responsible.”  As I like to say in my speeches to students, this is not just about being responsible to your parents or your society but being responsible to yourself and able to answer for your decisions.  It is my version of what the philosophers call the good life.
  • Finally, I chose “in this century” over an earlier formulation, “in the twenty-first century” for the echoes of Kennedy’s inaugural address. After all, the question what must we learn in this century is timeless because it can be asked in any century. I suppose if I had thought about it, given demographic trends, I might have said “in this millennium.”

In May 2012, I was named President of the College. My greatest administrative talent seems to be appointing the right committees, and the first committee I appointed was the inaugural curriculum committee of Yale-NUS College, chaired by Bryan Garsten and co-chaired by Rajeev Patke. You will be hearing from members of this committee on the panel this afternoon, so I will not anticipate too much of what they undertook. But if you have not yet read their report, “A New Community of Learning,” I hope you will do so. It gives a deep analysis of the challenges of general education, the tension between the purposes of the research university and the goals of collegiate education, and the relevance of character in undergraduate education.

My other rhetorical contribution in 2012 was to lead the College in the development of a statement of the College’s vision and mission. Here I took inspiration from Andrew Delbanco’s book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. I also had the good advice of the President of the National University of Singapore, Tan Chorh Chuan, who said that a vision statement should have the concision of a haiku. The statement we came up with does not have quite the right number of syllables but it does, I think, encapsulate the College’s mission in three lines:

A community of learning,
Founded by two great universities,
In Asia, for the world.

The advantages of a haiku are concision and compression. I have given speeches about the mission of the college to every type of audience and of every conceivable length and all can be structured around these three lines. Being founders, we were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to get buy-in for a fairly ambitious mission statement that goes along with this vision and takes the form of a commentary on each line of the vision. Again, I think my message for this group is that it is worthwhile, though challenging, to have a discussion about the ultimate purposes of your institution and to achieve what consensus you can even though consensus is a very rare commodity in institutions of higher education and even though at times it may seem that you are re-stating the obvious.

Let me close by returning to the underlying question, “Why a common curriculum?”  In the end, I think the argument for a common curriculum is closely linked to the notion of college as a community of learning. Clearly there are some things a young person must learn, and just as clearly not all those things are taught in high school. In a global college like ours in Singapore, but even in a diverse community like the United States, despite the efforts to achieve a “common core” in high school, students come to College with very different levels of preparation, and ideally a common curriculum will allow us to ensure that they graduate with some of the essential skills and civic knowledge that cannot be guaranteed in a pure elective system and that may not be included in their majors.

It is easy, however, to forget the costs of a common curriculum, namely in the students’ lack of autonomy in choosing their own courses, and at least for some subjects in a delayed start for specialisation. A common curriculum is also extremely demanding for the faculty who teach it, and although it can be stimulating and indeed fun to participate in such broad, team-taught courses, it again cuts against the specialisation that is central to modern scholarship; many faculty would prefer to spend more time teaching advanced courses that are more directly relevant to their research.

Despite the costs, I think the choice of a common curriculum for Yale-NUS College was the right one. While the needs of society and the workforce are, I think, appropriate spurs to a common curriculum approach, the essence of the approach lies in this notion of the community of learning. The experience of reading the same books, solving the same problem sets, debating the same social issues all across campus has contributed immeasurably to the sense of community at the College. I used to comment sometimes that perhaps it didn’t even matter that much which books the students read but that it was just the fact that they were all reading them at the same time that mattered most. I don’t quite believe that, and I still have preferences about which books they should read (which do not always correspond to the preferences of the faculty). Our curriculum is, more or less, right for our moment, the early decades of this century, and our place, in Southeast Asia, and we hope that it educates our students to be citizens of the world. But it is this experience of living together in a community and dedicating themselves to a shared endeavour, most fully embodied in the common curriculum that is the essence of a Yale-NUS education.

We look forward to sharing our experience of building this curriculum over the last five years with all of you and we welcome you into our community of learning.