Liberal Education and Innovation

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Symposium on University as a Source of Innovation and Economic Development
Stanford Center, Peking University
4 October 2014


Enge Wang, President, Peking University,

John Etchemendy, Provost, Stanford University,

Richard Saller, Dean, School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University,


Liberal education is among the most honored but also the most contested creations of the modern university system, a mode of learning broadly and deeply which has inspired new programs and schools throughout Asia and beyond, even as it has become a site of debate in the United States.  21st-century liberal education should draw on the traditional strengths of the liberal arts tradition, which I will describe today as a series of conversations. At the same time, I will recognize certain important criticisms of existing liberal education programs, which focus on the shaping of students’ characters through education.  Finally, I will describe the founding of a new liberal education institution, Yale-NUS College, which is envisioned as a community of learning.  I hope, then, to define what is living in the tradition of liberal arts education, what are its current failings, and what innovations can be introduced in order to re-envision this form of education for a complex, interconnected world.

I will speak broadly of liberal education, but I have in mind especially the form of education in the liberal arts and sciences practiced in the best colleges and universities in the United States, as contrasted with university systems that emphasize relatively early specialization, such as have been common in Asia at least since the Second World War.

While I myself attended a university with such a program, McGill University, where I took a three-year honors degree in English literature, my experience in graduate school at Stanford and as a faculty member at Yale University in the United States and more recently in Singapore at Yale-NUS College, has convinced me that a broader, four-year program spanning the breadth of the humanities and sciences promises a better foundation for future global citizens.  In a broad sense, of course, my training at McGill was also a form of liberal education, and perhaps more important than the distinction between curricula with greater specialization or greater depth is the broad spirit of liberal learning which is present in many great colleges and universities and is certainly not the exclusive preserve of the American form of liberal education.  So I am speaking today both about the specifics of a particular kind of curriculum and about the broader principles underlying liberal education in general.  I should emphasize too that a liberal education includes science so I am not advocating for a liberal education at the expense of STEM education; rather, I think the two should be integrated.

There are at least five good reasons to pursue a liberal education, and to provide one for our students:

The most commonly cited reason, and a very important one, is to make students into better-informed citizens.  By developing their critical reasoning skills, and by practicing the art of discussion and consensus in a classroom, they become better able to debate matters of public importance and to arrive at reasoned agreement, or reasoned disagreement, with their peers in the political sphere.

Another reason, equally valid and perhaps even more important to some parents and governments, is to create more innovative workers.  Technical education is extremely important for the development of industrial society, but in the post-industrial world, employers value skills such as creativity, the ability to “think outside the box,” openness to multiple perspectives; and liberal education fosters these traits.

Certain forms of liberal education also prepare students well for life in a multi-cultural or cosmopolitan society by making them aware of a variety of cultures and the need to communicate effectively across cultures.

More fundamental than any of these, perhaps, is the ethical case for liberal education.  Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Liberal education fosters habits of self-awareness and self-criticism and makes us aware of the importance of examining our own prejudices and assumptions.

Finally, and most intangibly, liberal education allows the individual a greater enjoyment of life; whether it is in appreciating a work of art, understanding an argument in philosophy or an equation in mathematics, or exploring the diversity of the natural world. To be broadly educated provides pleasure and depth to the experience of life, something that has been recognized both in China and the West for centuries. It is recorded in the Analects that Confucius said, “’The gentleman is not a [one-purpose] vessel.’” 君子不器 (Analects [Lunyu] 2.11). As the Song-dynasty Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi [Shee] explains in his commentary to the passage: “Vessels are things that each fulfill a particular function yet cannot be used interchangeably. A man of accomplished virtue embodies [a broad learning] that incorporates everything, and thus he is completely well-rounded in his applications, and not merely someone who displays a single talent or skill.”

Part I: Conversation

Liberal education depends on conversation.  Conversation between a teacher and a student; conversation among students inside and outside the classroom; conversations with the traditions of learning; conversations with the past.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer spoke of the encounter with a text from the past in terms of a “fusion of horizons,” an expression that has always reminded me of the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, whose “Stormy Sea Breaking on a Shore” from the Yale Center for British Art is shown here. As Gadamer explains in an important passage from Truth and Method, “The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.”  Metaphorically, we can speak of people with narrow or broad horizons, that is people who have very limited ideas and people who see many other points of view.  What is important about the metaphor of the horizon is that it both suggests that we can see a certain distance and calls attention to the limited range of our sight.  There is always something beyond our horizon that we do not yet know or have not yet seen.  The nature of a conversation, including conversations with texts, is that we try to make our horizon match the horizon of the person we’re talking to. Gadamer gives as an example of an unproductive conversation the oral examination, in which the examiner seeks to find out what the examinee knows, but not really to learn from him or her, and not to arrive at a real understanding.    By contrast with this, the true “fusion of horizons” for Gadamer consists in really engaging with the other and thus in opening up our horizon for possible changes.  Our horizon is always ready to change as we grow and learn and develop, and the real fusion of horizons with the past involves the potential for such change.  Our encounter with the past, Gadamer argues, is part of what allows this development.  The problem of interpretation, as he also says, is the problem of all understanding, namely how to engage in this dialogue with others, with texts, with the world, by which we at once challenge our own horizons and seek to learn something from and speak back to the rest of the world.

Now Gadamer was concerned with the philosophy of interpretation, but it is no accident that the most characteristic form of liberal arts education in the United States is the seminar in which a professor and a group of students grapple with the interpretation of an important text, or work of art, or piece of evidence.  Liberal education allows students to test their own ideas against those of their classmates, their professors, the great works of the past, and the most important current research in their fields of study.  It also demands that they learn some of the tools of interpretation in a variety of disciplines, so that they can approach problems from multiple perspectives.  Ideally, liberal education also leads students from different backgrounds to encounter diverse and disparate cultures. Not only do students bring these distant cultures together through their studies, but they themselves encounter different backgrounds and patterns of thought through the diverse student body with which they share this educational journey. Indeed, liberal education leads students not just to encounter distant cultures, but to redefine what they understand as “distant,” forming their own pictures of the world and its global conversations.

In the context of liberal education, students are encouraged to enter into such conversations first-hand, through small classes, discussion groups, and laboratories. Here, they become active participants in their own learning process, deriving new, diverse methods for encountering problems ranging from social inequality to the age of the universe. Working alongside their fellow students, they are encouraged to broaden their perspectives and to solve problems within a group, making decisions on the basis of others’ advice, but also learning to be accountable for their own ideas and contributions [see Laloux, 100-4].  This feature of liberal education is one of the reasons that it can propel students toward innovative approaches, which can be valuable in their later working life. Through this group work, students come to recognize that innovation is not just the product of a single brilliant mind working in a vacuum, but of the continued, concerted efforts of teams that discuss, encourage, criticize, test, and refine new ideas.

Such conversations between individual students and the group or groups in which they participate become part of daily life through the system of residential colleges.  The collegiate model goes all the way back to medieval Oxford and Cambridge, but similar communities of learning existed in China even earlier. By living alongside peers with a variety of different backgrounds, experiences, and interests, students learn to coexist with others, even in situations where their opinions or expectations may differ widely from one another. [see Harry Lewis, 79] Residential colleges continue the work of liberal education beyond the classroom, promoting compromise over unilateral decision-making, and a recognition of others’ humanity and worth over the primacy of a single student’s individual needs. Students become leaders among their peers, but also learn to listen to what their peers have to say, forging and evaluating solutions together. Further, residential colleges lead students to see their education not as a “job” that is localized to a single classroom or laboratory, but as a vocation, a collection of many “roles” that they play in relation to others [Laloux, 90, 119]. By learning to move fluidly among these roles and to integrate education into their everyday lives, students create an innovative space in which they might reevaluate and adapt the lessons of the classroom into real-world conversations.  In such communities, students participate in the sports, clubs, societies, musical groups, and student publications that create a lively civil society in parallel with the official curriculum taught by the faculty. Supported by a residential staff that pays attention to their emotional and social needs, students find this period of their lives a great opportunity for personal growth and for developing their abilities as citizens and leaders.

Despite liberal education’s broad success in fostering an environment that promotes conversation and innovation, there remain aspects of a traditional liberal education that call for reform and innovation. This is a task which has been taken up both in the older liberal arts institutions of the West and in the new or recreated institutions of Asia. To say that liberal education requires some rethinking in the twenty-first century is simply to recognize that colleges and universities, like other great institutions, must change in response to history, technology, and the needs of our students [Laloux, 15]. I want to outline here a few of liberal education’s pitfalls, so that we can then discuss how this form of learning might be improved and enlivened to serve the needs of our twenty-first-century students.  It seems to me that the most telling critiques of liberal education can be summarized in terms of the problem of character.

On the one hand, colleges and universities have often promised to shape the character of their students, while on the other, critics such as the former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis (no relation) and my friend and former Yale colleague William Deresiewicz have pointed to weaknesses especially in elite American educational institutions.  While I do not share all of their analyses of the situation, I do think they raise important issues.  As competition for entry into the top institutions continues to increase, there are risks that those who attend, for example, Ivy League colleges, will come from a narrower stratum of society, will see themselves as entitled, will avoid risks and stick to safe subjects and pursuits, and will be treated by their institutions as the customers who are proverbially always right rather than challenged to grow and sometimes to fail.

Probably the most important issue here is one of access.  Given increasingly tough competition for spots in the top universities of the world, those born into privileged families can take advantage of better primary and secondary education, tutors, admissions coaches, and other advantages that help them to gain admission to elite institutions.  These institutions have recognized the problem and devoted considerable resources to seeking out students from poor backgrounds or from under-represented minorities, but it is still the case that most students at Ivy League colleges come from families that are upper middle-class or wealthy, and that relatively few talented students from the poorer segments of society receive the kind of college preparation that allows them to attend the Ivy League.  Even among those who might benefit from an Ivy League education, ignorance of the opportunities or fear of the cost may prevent them from applying.  This is not a problem with an easy solution; colleges and universities rightly seek to promote diversity, but ultimately some of these problems are a product of a stratified social structure and the poor opportunities at earlier levels of education for the underprivileged in the United States.  Having lived in Canada, the United States, and now Singapore, I suppose the best I could hope would be that the United States might adopt a public education system more like Canada’s or Singapore’s so that more of its young people would be ready for the opportunities presented by its outstanding university system.  In the meantime, colleges and universities should continue to seek out a diverse array of students with high potential and should place greater emphasis on developing an ethos of service among their students so that those who are privileged to attend the great universities recognize their responsibility for giving back to the broader community.  Even among the children of the elite who do ultimately get in to the top universities, there may be negative effects in the pressure of competing for these spots. One risk is that high school students (and even younger children) who are influenced by well-meaning but driven parents might learn to view their studies and extracurricular activities only through the prism of what will get them into the College of their dreams, and that the joy of learning for its own sake, or playing a sport or a musical instrument, or participating in a life-enhancing activity, will be reduced to a line on an admissions form or “brag sheet.”

One of the main criticisms of the liberal education provided once students arrive at leading institutions has been that it caters more to student desires or fads than to challenging students or building their characters [Lewis, 93ff.]. In many curricula, for instance, relatively weak general education requirements have allowed the opening of a rift between disciplines, with the humanities and natural sciences on opposite sides of this divide and the social sciences hovering somewhat uncertainly toward the middle. In this situation – a modern variant of C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” – students and faculty seem increasingly unable to traverse the space between the disciplines. Humanities majors think that science is too “difficult” or “objective”; science majors think that the humanities are too “soft” or “subjective.” If given the opportunity, many students avoid taking courses outside of their own discipline, or, in the case of “distribution requirements,” they often take the easiest, most watered-down courses they can find. This situation does not, as some might think, help students to specialize in a single field, but rather, makes certain that they will remain distrustful of concepts and forms of learning beyond their own blinkered purview. In fact, this isolation of the disciplines prevents innovation, since it stands in the way of students bringing together multiple disciplines in order to make all of their studies richer, adapting vocabularies and ideas from one discipline to another in order to create an interdisciplinary conversation. Rather than building students’ characters through intellectual and interdisciplinary challenges, such forms of liberal education allow them to remain within their academic comfort zones.

Furthermore, in many liberal education programs and particularly in the United States, curricula artificially limit the scope of their students’ education even before they arrive on campus. Even in institutions that boast cohesive, challenging liberal education curricula, the focus is often exclusively on Western thought, with relatively weak gestures toward comparison with sources outside of Western Europe and America. In addition, many schools place a disproportionate focus on liberal education in the humanities, with students required to take only superficial, watered-down courses in quantitative or natural sciences. This exacerbates the “two cultures” problem, and, ironically, does a disservice to both sides of the disciplinary divide, since it paints the humanities as easy enough for any student to learn, marks the sciences as too difficult, and provides students with a rather lopsided, insufficiently challenging education.

One further challenge of current liberal education programs bears mentioning: the problem of forging a deeper link between living and learning, between undergraduate student life and the educational mission of the college or university. Student extracurricular life can be a source of education as lasting and important as that of the formal curriculum, but there are also many institutions where extracurricular life is dominated by partying or where well-meaning student life staff are not really seen as partners in the educational enterprise.  Such institutions lose the opportunity for many of the important synergies that make college a time not only for intellectual but also for personal and civic growth.

Finally, a common complaint about academia today concerns the perceived over-emphasis on research at the expense of teaching.  While I do think that there are a number of problems with the incentive structure in academia that sometimes grant tenure and promotion to indifferent or even bad teachers, and that discourage some faculty from truly engaging with their students, I think that it would be a mistake to assume that the relationship between research and teaching is a zero-sum game. Some faculty may ignore their teaching duties while pushing to get tenure; others may churn out publications of minimal importance. For the most part, however, the opportunity to conduct specialized research allows faculty to develop their knowledge of their fields and to hone their own intellects, allowing them to share this learning, in turn, with their students.  The caricature of the researcher who sees students as a mere distraction is, in my experience, unrepresentative.  Most faculty seek a balance between teaching and research, and many of the best researchers are in fact also excellent teachers, because the factors that go into good research and good teaching are closely intertwined: intelligence, devotion to learning, and hard work.  There is, however, some risk that by over-emphasizing research in our rewards system (tenure, promotion, salary), we might encourage faculty to become too absorbed in their research and that this has a negative impact on their teaching, too, as they may undergraduates like proto-graduate students, grading undergraduate work as if it were a credential for graduate school rather than tailoring courses to fit undergraduate needs, and expecting students to become premature specialists rather than allowing them to explore subjects broadly.

The challenge here lies in balance. Faculty should have the freedom to pursue their own research, so that they can advance knowledge and infuse their teaching with new, future-facing ideas. They should also teach a curriculum that is inspiring and demanding, yet tailored to a class of undergraduates who likely will not become specialists in a given academic field. Instead, professors should teach students with the expectation that they will be adapting their liberal education to a world beyond the academy, from the arts to law, medicine to business, government to non-governmental organizations. They need not pander to students’ career goals, but should allow this breadth of application to infuse their approach to their specialized subjects, allowing both students and faculty to see beyond the subject at hand to its larger importance. Finally, faculty should serve not just as teachers, but also as mentors to their students, bridging the gap between the time in the classroom and students’ lives beyond. In some liberal education institutions, this bridge is facilitated by designated faculty who live on campus as residential fellows but it need not be so formal. Faculty should embody for their students the connection – yet another ongoing conversation – between learning and life.

As twenty-first-century educators, how might we address these challenges of liberal education while also retaining the traditional strengths of this mode of education? How might we create an innovative form of liberal education which itself promotes innovation? These are questions that my colleagues and I have asked ourselves repeatedly as we’ve forged ahead in the process of creating a new institution for liberal education at Yale-NUS College. It’s a rare and exciting opportunity to draw on the history of the liberal arts and sciences and on current best practices, and then to then apply one’s findings to a practical outcome [cf. UVA: Roth, 27], yet at Yale-NUS, this is precisely the chance we’ve experienced over the past several years. As all of us here are well aware, some of the most innovative applications of liberal education these days are to be found not just in the ivy-covered institutions of the United States but in the ancient courtyards and quickly rising campuses of Asia. The opportunity to think about new or renovated Asian versions of liberal education gives us the opportunity to see what is most relevant in these methods and what can be adapted for greater success in the future.

One of the first innovations that we introduced at Yale-NUS was a rigorous common curriculum. This addressed several of the pitfalls I’ve just discussed by including texts both Western and non-Western, pairing Confucius with Aristotle, the Odyssey with the Ramayana, and also bringing modern texts from throughout Asia and the West in conversation with each other. Such a comparative approach is not just limited to the humanities, as courses on “Comparative Social Institutions” and “Historical Immersion” carry this global scope into the social sciences, as well. In addition, our common curriculum gives a broad and rigorous introduction to the methods of the humanities, social sciences, and the natural sciences. Out of ten required courses, three are focused in the natural sciences, and one in quantitative reasoning. Rather than treating non-majors to watered-down courses, each course in our common curriculum is designed to challenge students to understand a variety of disciplinary approaches and ways of thinking. This teaches students to become proficient in and understand the applications of multiple subjects, as well as to bring these together in their work in and beyond the university.

We created the common curriculum with one central question in mind: “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” In other words, what education must we provide for our students such that they continue to learn and create new ideas once they leave our campus? How do we ensure that they live what Socrates called “the examined life,” thinking critically about their own values, and at the same time have the opportunity for an active life, one that allows them to make a difference beyond the campus walls.

One solution was already open to us: by placing our school in Asia, we were able to bring together students from a variety of backgrounds, including adventurous students from all over the world. To give you a sense of the resulting diversity, our entering class in 2013, comprising about 150 students, was about 40% international, including students from six continents—only Antarctica has escaped our intrepid admissions officers! This sort of diversity allows students to explore new practices and viewpoints simply by working with their peers. It also allows them to embrace risk and the possibility of failure [Tellis, Black], since our students know that they will encounter others with habits, traditions, and languages that are entirely new to them, and that they will have to test and retest methods for finding a middle ground. Because our students have come from far and near, and from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, they are primed to become self-reliant and to probe traditional knowledge with an open but critical mind [Roth, 60-3]. We strive to capitalize upon these instincts through an education that leads them even further beyond their comfort zones. As an international community of learning, we teach our students to to discover and create new opportunities in their world.

As I’ve already mentioned, we have also refocused our liberal education curriculum to include in-depth scientific training for all students, as well as required classes in social science and quantitative methods. This, too, challenges students to move beyond their areas of comfort and to gain the knowledge that will help them to study and evaluate their quickly changing world. In the course of the past decade, much has been said about the failure of traditional liberal education programs to furnish students with the tools to make wise financial decisions or to vote on hot-topic political issues. By introducing all of our students not just to “science” or “math,” but to the structure of scientific inquiry – we are providing them with the vocabulary and confidence to think critically within their own disciplines and future careers, as well as to become responsible citizens and leaders. At times, innovation means simply possessing the awareness of what needs innovating, and we expect that a training in all three branches – science, social science, and humanities – will equip our students with precisely this skill.

In addition to this in-class curriculum, we’ve designed a program that requires students to bring their campus-bound learning into the world, to make education into innovation. All students at Yale-NUS take part in a program called “Learning Across Boundaries,” in which students spend a week in off-campus projects, becoming immersed in such topics as biodiversity in Spain, Burmese literature, or Buddhist philosophy in Kyoto, Japan. Much like the “20% time” set aside by major corporations for their employees to pursue self-driven, innovative projects [Tellis], these off-campus trips provide students with a canvas on which to experiment with the skills they’ve learned in class. Students are driven to understand the world not just intellectually, but practically, to apply their education as a basis for engagement and empathy [Roth, 18]. By going out into the world as a part of their common curriculum at Yale-NUS, students practice bridging the gap between world and campus, precisely the same bridge that they will cross as they graduate from our institution. We hope that this practice in bringing liberal education to real-world applications will allow our students to replicate and expand upon their experiences at Yale-NUS by creating their own innovations in the world. This is our tradition of innovation.

In building innovation into the foundational structure of liberal education at Yale-NUS, we’ve also sought to recruit our faculty as champions of innovation and change. By placing faculty in “divisions” that are inherently interdisciplinary, we strive to break down the silos inherited from the traditional nineteenth-century organization of research universities, resulting in an integration of disciplines that is emulated in our students’ common curriculum. Faculty participate in workshops and teach in teams that help them to generate new ideas regarding both research and pedagogy.

Through a broad but well-defined and intensive common curriculum, the integration of different disciplines, the drawing together of world and campus, and finally the recruitment of an energetic faculty with a strong commitment to undergraduate education, we at Yale-NUS have striven to create an international community of learning. Our community is founded in the conversations facilitated by the liberal education tradition and it addresses head-on the challenges that liberal education has confronted as it adapts to the twenty-first century and spreads throughout the world. Most of all, our community is founded on the idea that we wish to teach students to anticipate change, to ask future-facing questions, to take on risks, and to carry their learning beyond the walls of our campus. Through interdisciplinary, international knowledge, through self-reliance and teamwork, we wish to create a campus of innovators.  We have summarized our mission as follows:

A Community of Learning
Founded by two great universities
In Asia, for the world.

I am honored to share this vision with colleagues here in China, and I hope that the traditions of liberal education will continue to enliven Asian educational systems in the generations to come, shaping a generation of Asian leaders who are also citizens of the world.