A first meeting of minds and a new philosophy of history for the liberal arts and sciences

By Bernard Bate, Associate Professor, Social Science, Yale-NUS College

2012-08-14

Over two weeks last July the first 40 members of the new faculty of Yale-NUS College met each other and began to seriously think about what our new college will be like.  We spent time brain-storming the values that will frame our teaching, ways of making writing and speaking integral to every course, and the overall philosophies of history and pedagogy that will inform the culture of the college.  We heard short research talks from our colleagues, from the eighteenth-century physics that informs the measurement of black holes to the aesthetics that undergird Plato’s politics, from the multiple knowledge bases that interact in tsunami and earthquake recovery to an ethnomusicological inquiry into early twentieth-century recordings of Indian devotional music.

What occupied us most, however, were workshops to develop the common core courses.  Students at Yale-NUS will spend the majority of their first few years in several overlapping sets of common courses, something like Columbia’s or University of Chicago’s core programs, and somewhat like Stanford’s or Yale’s specialized programs (Structured Liberal Education and Directed Studies (DS) respectively) for select first year students.  In some respects, ours will perhaps be most like Saint John’s College that has strong core programs for all students running over the course of four years. The philosophies that back such programs acknowledge that there will be limits to the range and variety of materials that students will encounter, especially in their first few years. But those same limitations will provide a shared universe of discourse that will be deepened and broadened over the course of all of our liberal study in the humanities and sciences.

What will make our College unique in the world, however, is a fundamentally different philosophy of history. Such a philosophy is provoked by our location in Singapore. What does human history look like from the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula at the crossroads of Indic, Sinic, European and Islamic civilizations?  More pointedly, what will a liberal arts and science program look like from such a location? All of the core programs of the colleges mentioned above begin with Greece and assume a transhistorical conversation of minds – almost exclusively in Europe.  While the core programs of University of Chicago and Columbia will add some non-European texts as auxiliaries to their curricula, the very DNA of these programs are European.  And while we admire Yale’s DS in many respects, the Eurocentrism of the program is legendary – and self-admitted.

Yale-NUS faculty and students will assume that there have been connections among human beings – exchanges of knowledge, science, technology, philosophy and folklore – for the past five thousand years.  Our students will understand from the outset the development of philosophy, literature, mathematics and science as knowledge, people and things crisscrossed the globe.  Literature will begin with the Ramayana along with the Iliad; philosophy and political theory will grapple with Confucius and Neo-Confucianism through the ages along with Plato.  Our worlds will more closely reflect the plurality of human contact for the past five-thousand years rather than assume a uni-regional development of thought that, we know, is not in accord with more recent understandings of the interconnections of human beings and thought over time.

This same sense of a pan-historical exchange challenges such neat divisions as East and West.  In friendly opposition to some of the earlier rhetoric of the program, the new faculty of YNC raised numerous and consistent arguments against the sense that the world might be so divided, that an East/West division assumes that civilizations were and are sui generis. Our college begins with this newer and truer understanding of human history.

The core also begins with synthetic modes of analysis rather than preparation for specific disciplines. We will ask students to choose majors – eventually. But we will begin with objects of wonder in and of themselves rather than as objects to be understood only through disciplinary frames.  Our science program begins not with chemistry, biology, and physics – majors students will take up later – but an intensive multi-semester course called Integrated Science that introduces topics, problems, objects of inquiry, and methodology designed to instill a scientific orientation to the world and its questions while protecting, cultivating and promoting the wonder that lies at the heart of science.

Finally, our curriculum is being designed to elevate knowledge as a good in and of itself – not as a means to create a better employee for corporate life that we see increasingly driving higher education priorities in the American academy. We will champion the idea that the broadly educated person will be better qualified for professional careers and in business than more narrowly trained students in other bachelors programs. Their abilities in the arts, humanities, mathematics, social and natural sciences will indeed prepare our students to enter into corporate or professional life.  But they will do so upon the bases of a wide and complex understanding of the human condition through deep humanistic and scientific inquiry as it developed over five millennia across the planet.

Global citizens, to be sure, ennobled with knowledge and creativity and wonder.  These will be our students and graduates.  And, after two weeks workshop incubation with the new faculty of Yale-NUS, these will be our colleagues, too.

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