I write as someone committed to a liberal arts education in its historically Western and potentially global applications. Born in India, I received what I might describe as a solid foundation in the humanities. I then read English literature at Oxford (for two degrees, including doctoral work on the American poet, Wallace Stevens), and spent a semester at Yale as a Postdoctoral Fellow. I believe that the U.S. model of a liberal arts education builds on rich European origins, and in its contemporary form offers an important alternative to the contemporary system of university education centered on early and exclusive specialization. The liberal arts model has the potential to diversify and enrich educational options in rapidly modernizing countries such as Singapore. As an academic involved for the past year in helping Singapore adapt the Western model to a twenty-first century context in Southeast Asia, I have worked with a team of academics from Yale and NUS in planning a curriculum and in recruiting faculty for YaleNUS. That is, I speak as someone who is firmly committed to a future for the liberal arts in Singapore.
Some voices in New Haven (and elsewhere in the U.S.) have declared that an alliance between Yale and NUS compromises the ideals of the liberal arts model. I do not think so myself. Indeed, not to take up this challenge would be the real dereliction. I am of the persuasion that the liberal arts educational alternative can secure itself a fresh lease on life when transposed to Southeast Asia. There is virtue in hybridity and adaptability. The notion that Singapore is a repressive society has cast an exaggerated – and perhaps needless – shadow over this venture. The matter of a list of banned books, when read out of context, can appear to support this notion. I hope to present, in brief, a less apprehensive view of the future for the Yale-NUS alliance.
Most nation-states have a history of banned books: a fate suffered for example, at least for a while, by Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) was briefly withdrawn from publication in 1881 by its Boston publisher for reasons of explicit sexual content. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (1782) was banned by the U.S. Customs in 1929 as injurious to public morality. In 1930 the U.S. Customs seized copies of Voltaire’s Candide (1759). One hardly needs to mention the struggle faced by the publishers of D. H. Lawrence or James Joyce to get some of their works published and sold in the U.S. and the U.K.. These are books that many would regard as foundational to a humanities education. In more recent times, the U.S. provides ample evidence for educational anxiety about the books that might not be suited for young minds.
We all recognize the reasons for such bans. Content that endorses gratuitous violence might be more difficult to proscribe than material conducive to religious or ethnic prejudice or material that is prurient. Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), for instance, was banned for a while in Canada in 1958. It comes as no great surprise to realize that the Catholic Church abolished its Index of Prohibited Books as recently as 1966. A quick check online indicates that Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was banned from classrooms in Midland, Michigan in 1980, for its portrayal of Shylock. The Merriam Webster Dictionary was banned in a California elementary school in January 2010 for its definition of oral sex. A July 2011 feature by the UK-based Guardian notes that Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and a young adult novel, Twenty Boy Summer (2009) by Sarah Ockler, have both been banned from a school curriculum and library in a Missouri school. An August 19, 2011 report by Marie Diamond declares “Censorship On The Rise: U.S. Schools Have Banned More Than 20 Books This Year.” I could go on and on.
So yes, Singapore does indeed have a list of banned books. It exemplifies a particular view of how a nation-state wishes to protect its citizens. Every nation makes provisions to ensure what it believes are its best interests. Perceptions of what that might entail, and how it should be done keep evolving. Meanwhile, the spirit of liberalism that inheres somewhere in the idea of a liberal arts education can surely recognize the principle of “Live and Let Live.” Moreover, it seems to have been overlooked that a number of the books claimed as banned in Singapore are available in the NUS library for students and faculty to read, discuss and debate. De Sade, for example, is presented with six titles; and two of Salman’s Rushdie’s banned books – Shame (1983) and The Satanic Verses (1988) – are also available for academic study. And times are changing. A liberal arts education is part of that process. There is room for evolving models of education to change the nation-state’s perceptions of its own interests.
That brings me to my most persuasive argument. Milton wrote in Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister’d vertue, unexercis’d & unbreath’d, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.” In the spirit of Milton I might ask, what is the use of a liberal arts system that practices its virtues safely in the U.S., where it meets few challenges to its ideals and efficacy? Here, in Singapore, a nation which lacks this option, the idea of the liberal arts has an opportunity to train perceptions and change attitudes towards the ideal of a wiser humanism. More to the point, it has a chance to test itself. Why shrink from that challenge? Why not welcome it, instead, as the logical evolution of a role for the liberal arts in education?
Rajeev S. Patke
B.A., M.A. (Pune), M.Phil., D.Phil. (Oxon)
Professor, National University of Singapore