Two years ago, when plans were first outlined for a college to be jointly founded by Yale and the National University of Singapore, I volunteered to be involved in planning the humanities curriculum and hiring the initial faculty. What could be more exciting than building an entirely new residential undergraduate program in liberal arts from the ground up? A friend of mine joked that I must feel like Walter de Merton, who founded one of the oldest colleges at Oxford in the 13th century.
Back in the late 20th century, I was very fortunate, upon completing my PhD in comparative literature, to get the best job I could hope for, as an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Yale. Like the Egyptians who experienced seven years of feast and seven years of famine (but in reverse order), I spent seven years on the tenure track and seven more years as a tenured professor.
In those 14 years, I learned a great deal from my colleagues and students. The spirit of inquiry and sense of community at Yale set it apart from any educational institution I have ever been associated with. Yale undergraduates care intensely about the life of the mind, and they also care about the world around them. Nowhere else have I seen what Hannah Arendt describes as the “vita contemplativa” and the “vita activa” so harmoniously blended.
But now, as president of Yale-NUS College, I have been granted the opportunity to take what I have learned at Yale and use it to build a new institution. My wife Sheila and I visited Singapore in 1994 and admired the multicultural variety of Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street.
One afternoon, I communed with the spirit of Joseph Conrad at the bar of the Raffles Hotel, where he first conceived the idea for “Lord Jim,” his brilliant critique of the imperialist spirit. Even 18 years ago, we recognized Singapore as a society in rapid transition.
I did not visit Singapore again until last year, but I was hooked. Friends who have taught in Singapore have emphasized both the rapid growth of the university system and some of the challenges it faces. NUS has evolved over the last half-century into one of the top universities in Asia, in large part because of the strong financial support of the government of Singapore and Singapore’s decision to make the university formally autonomous about a decade ago. Over the years, NUS has expanded its breadth, flexibility and global education opportunities. Yet the university is seeking to do even more.
I have spent two invigorating years working with colleagues at both NUS and Yale to hire the initial faculty and prepare the outlines of a broad-ranging curriculum for Yale-NUS. I appreciate the concerns of those on the faculty who worry about how Yale’s values will be upheld in a culture with very different laws and norms. My interaction with colleagues who already teach at NUS has confirmed for me, however, that this is a great opportunity to develop a new model of liberal arts education, true to the traditions of Yale but adapted to the needs of the 21st century and incorporating study of a variety of Asian cultures.
Singapore continues to evolve. Conversations are deepening on issues concerning homosexuality, journalistic practices and multi-party elections. Yale’s agreement with NUS and the evolving norms within Singapore create the basis for making liberal education a reality. It will be my job to make sure the culture of liberal education flourishes in the new college, and I invite my colleagues at Yale to participate in developing that culture. After spending a third of my life in New Haven, it is hard to leave behind friends and colleagues, but I hope I will be taking a little bit of New Haven with me to Singapore — and I expect visitors!
In his “Principles of Political Economy” of 1848, John Stuart Mill wrote, “It is hardly possible to overstate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.”
These words are equally true in our age. When value systems do come into conflict, the best hope for the future leadership of a rapidly changing world lies not in isolation or withdrawal from that conflict but in the continued exchange of ideas and knowledge, which is the essence of a liberal education. And it is to further the goals of liberal education that I am going to Singapore.
Pericles Lewis is president of Yale-NUS College.