My colleagues and I have just spent an intense summer beginning to craft the curriculum of our new college. While academics usually spend the months of July and August burrowed in the archives, libraries, or laboratories, lost in splendid contemplative isolation, this year the forty of us met in New Haven and Singapore for a total of four weeks to lay the foundations of our new college. We are the Aeneas of Yale-NUS!
How many the books! How short our time! What ought we teach and how ought we teach? This question has been a concern of society since the invention of writing: in ancient Athens, paideia was to be found in the Homeric epics; in the Latin Middle Ages, the liberal arts were embodied in the arts of the trivium—logic, grammar, rhetoric, and the scienceof the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In the Renaissance, erudition meant a retrieval of classical authors and the humanist construction of memory palaces. Later, men of the Enlightenment, headed by Diderot, produced the encyclopedié, “A Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, by a Company of Men of Letters.” With the rise of the research universities in 19th century Germany, knowledge became increasingly specialized and atomized into individual departments and smaller and smaller subfields. In the late modernity of the twentieth century, a series of crises rocked the university, from postmodernism and multiculturalism, that called into question the grand narratives of the Dead White Males, and led to the further partition of intellectual inquiry.
When the founders of Yale-NUS were developing the curriculum, they implicitly wagered on a bold proposition: that there is a unity of knowledge and this should be introduced to our students. At its most ambitious, the goal of the common curriculum of Yale-NUS College is to present to students the entirety of human knowledge—or as much of it as possible—in all its dizzying richness at the beginning of their college career.
At Yale College there are 73 majors and over 2000 courses to choose from. For most students (and even faculty), the world of knowledge is a labyrinth; the universe of learning is but a vast ocean, on the surface of which we perceive academic islands of various sizes, whose connection with the continent is hidden from us. Yale-NUS will have around 16 majors and 8 required courses for everyone in the first year. The common curriculum will offer to us a kind of intellectual world map that shows the major areas of intellectual inquiries, their position and their mutual dependence, their origins and relationships to one another, how they are reflected in the disciplines across the twenty-first century university. In a way, we redefine and put into a global perspective the Enlightenment project of the genealogical or encyclopedic tree, which sought to express the sum of human knowledge, or what the Chinese Neo-Confucians termed “broad learning,” boxue(博學).
The difficulty is how we can encompass the infinitely varied, ever growing branches of human knowledge—from antiquity to the present, from East and West, North and South, Europe and Asia, Antarctica and the Americas, Africa and Australian—into a truly unified system. Hence our project is at once antiquarian and postmodern. It will surely not encapsulate the totality of human knowledge, but serve only as an index. Certainly not one person has a complete command of it. It is by no means complete nor definitive. It does not cater to the fads of the day nor replicate received tradition, but represents the self-reflective, continuous work of a learned community. The common curriculum that we are presenting to the students, and by extension, the world, is the work of a society of scholars engaged in the pursuit of the arts and sciences.
Our goal in the loftiest sense is to organize into a coherent order what we think a liberally educated person in the 21st century should have thought about and been exposed to. Reflected in first year courses, they are the domains of Literature and Humanities, Philosophy and Political Thought, Scientific Inquiry, Quantitative Reasoning, and Comparative Social Institutions. Both philosophically and pedagogically, our courses will place the student at a vantage point from which he or she can perceive and engage in the foundational sciences and the arts. By the end of the first year the students will have a more expansive understanding of the entire common curriculum than any one of the professors! Since we will be a tiny college of eventually 1000 students and 100 faculty, what is gained is a shared experience for all: conversations between the generation of classes, outside and inside the classroom, professors from different fields of knowledge, from Singapore to New Haven, from Asia to the world. It is through the common curriculum by which Yale-NUS as a collegium—a community bound together by the shared desire to learn—will be forged.