Category Archives: Education

What college can’t do

What a beautiful piece from the New Yorker  In the thick of exam preparations, swim-or-sink instincts, unspeakable ennui (or deep uncertainty), it is worth remembering that the college years are the years of ‘dawning realization’. What have you learnt this year? 

What College Can’t Do

The New Yorker · by Joshua Rothman · August 6, 2014

A pair of Harvard alumni on campus for commencement, in 1977.

There’s a special joy in giving someone advice that’s sure not to be followed—“Wake up at the same time every morning”; “Don’t check your e-mail while on vacation”—and William Deresiewicz must have felt it when writing his recent cover story for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” Hypercompetitive colleges, Deresiewicz wrote, are the replicators of the ruling class, recruiting and training “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Better to go to a state school, where the student body is more socioeconomically diverse, or to a “second-tier” liberal-arts college, where “real educational values” persist, than to submit yourself or your child to the careerist “machine” of élite higher education. This is a slightly fantastical way of looking at college—is there really any reason to think that students at Reed are more intellectually curious than students at Columbia?—and its real-life applicability is hard to gauge. But Deresiewicz’s article resonated because it echoed broader cultural concerns about busyness and overwork. It’s now widely accepted that adult Americans as a whole act pretty much the way Deresiewicz thinks Ivy League kids act. Americans work too much, think too much about work, and cultivate an air of competent yet maniacal busyness.

In recent years, essays lamenting the culture of overwork—and the superficial, self-centered, self-destructive busyness that develops from it—have become a genre unto themselves. Ostensibly, these essays are about manageable subjects, subjects about which it’s possible to have a single opinion, like higher education, parenting, or “mindfulness.” But they are also about another, larger subject, which, in its glacial, impersonal force, seems to transcend opinion. That subject, more or less, is modernity. In the background of an essay like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—and of essays like “No Time to Think” or “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” both published in the Times—is the looming presence of the arrhythmic, unreassuring modern world, which seems always to be speeding things up in a senseless way. Modernity is the sort of problem that’s both very old and very new. Baudelaire coined the term, in 1860, and the first great literary treatments of modernité, such as “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” date from the nineteenth century. And yet to read “Ivan Ilyich,” a story about a workaholic lawyer and his atrophied inner life, is to see how much our contemporary busyness problem owes to a process that’s been going on for centuries.

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.

Because of modernity’s dual nature, it’s hard to figure out what role it plays in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, overworked, and uncertain about what the point of all your work is, is your boss to blame, or is it just modern life? If you’re unhappy at Yale—which, one student tells Deresiewicz, is “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul”—then why are you unhappy? It could be that the practical circumstances at Yale are soul-crushing. (There are a lot of extracurriculars.) It could be that you’re cut off from other sources of meaning. (Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League students live in a “bubble of privilege,” with a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.”) Or it could be that modern life makes thoughtful people feel, as Deresiewicz puts it, “emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and—most importantly—its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.

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What Finnish Education needs

Education in Finland: Pisa isn’t the full story | The Guardian, Dec 2013

Despite Finnish education’s strong performance in Pisa, it isn’t all perfect – science and maths standards are declining and top-performing students aren’t being pushed enough
Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, Iceland

Northern Lights: is the Finnish education system letting down its brightest students? Photograph: Arctic-Images/Getty Images

As a Finn, I know we can have a reputation for being dour and seeing the glass half-empty. Perhaps such pessimism is a feature of small, northerly nations, where people see more of the inside of drinking establishments than they do sunshine in winter months.

To avoid national stereotyping, I will therefore caveat what I am about to say by noting that the Finnish education system has much to commend it, notably equality of access, high societal regard for the value of education, and teacher respect.

Finnish performance in the programme for international student achievement (Pisa) league tables has led to an influx of educational tourism to Finland since the rankings were first published in 2001. We may have slipped in the latest judgment from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – which tests more than 500,000 pupils in 66 countries ranking performance in reading, maths and science – but we are still very much at the top tier of the world’s best performing educations systems and the attention isn’t likely to disappear soon.

Today’s results, however, show Finland dropping out of the top 10 performers in maths, with a score of 519, 22 points lower than the last ranking three years ago. Reading skills fell 12 points to 524, while the science ranking dropped nine points to 545. Signs of this were already showing in PISA 2009, although the slippage was less than anticipated.

I am concerned that the Finnish education system is letting down our brightest students. In every country, there is a debate about whether education systems should group children according to their ability. In Finland, we have taken a firm stance not to do this based on the belief that having mixed groups has distinct advantages, such as childrenteaching each other.

But are we giving enough room for our most intelligent young people to flourish? Every summer the organisation I run, Technology Academy Finland, brings the brightest teenagers in the world to Finland to work on science projects together. This year, the Millennium Youth Campwelcomed 60 students from 31 countries to work on sophisticated problems such as designing sanitation systems for a space mission to Mars. At this end of the educational spectrum, where the children’s ambitions are to improve on the work of Nobel prize-winners, it is vitally important to stretch the young people’s minds.

In many Finnish classrooms, however, the pace is determined by the lower-achieving students. In the lower grades, all children from the most talented to the least talented are grouped together. Some commend our system for serving all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. But it means our brightest cannot maximise their potential. No other country has so little variation in outcomes betweenschools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is slim.

We are kidding ourselves if we think these smart young people can make up the gap at university. Firstly, we run the risk that their intellectual energy is diverted into less worthwhile pursuits, getting them into trouble at school. Secondly, starting from behind makes it much less likely that the Nobel prize-winners of tomorrow will come from Finland.

To address these fault lines, we should maximise the use of the possibilities of technology in the classroom. Studies have shown that theuse of tablet computers in the classroom improves learning, while some video games have been shown to improve brain function.

More use of the flipped classroom model, where instruction is delivered online and homework is moved into the classroom, allows students to learn at their own pace. It would also allow us to economise the expensive resource of teacher time for direct interaction with students. Another benefit is that instruction is given by those best qualified in a given subject.

For our future competitiveness, we also need to encourage more students into maths, science and technology. While teaching these subjects is very difficult, flipped learning could make a difference especially for very young children. Teachers of younger students are expected to teach practically all subjects, and there is some criticism that many may be unsuited for instruction in mathematics.

In the upper grades, Finland has introduced a lot of freedom for students to select courses. As a result, fewer and fewer students select physics, chemistry and some of the more intensive maths courses. When it comes to university, some are finding that they are not qualified to their faculty of choice. Although they did not realise it when selecting their courses, too many are disqualifying themselves from courses such as computer science, where graduates are better paid and more likely to get a job in their chosen profession.

Much of the fall in today’s ranking, however, boils down to a simple question of economics. Education budgets are under pressure in these times of austerity, but we should be wary of cutting funding for our future. Investment in education is as crucial to nations’ long-term fiscal health as fiscal prudence in other areas. If Finland’s education system is to succeed, we must avoid complacency and continue to focus on reforms so our young people are best equipped for the competitive world of tomorrow.

Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski is the president and chief executive of Technology Academy Finland.

What drives success? The Triple Package of traits

A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well. It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.

Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.

Take New York City’s selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders. For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.

Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.

There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.

Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.

The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Continue reading

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The Empirical Kids

My student Marc (thanks Marc!) highlighted to me this series of David Brooks essays on youth/children – how they grow up, cope and thrive.

OP-ED COLUMNIST By  Published: March 28, 2013 282 Comment

Twelve years ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic, called “The Organization Kid,” about the smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities. Occasionally, somebody asks me how students have changed since then. I haven’t been perceptive enough to give a good answer.

But, this year, I’m teaching at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, and one terrifically observant senior, Victoria Buhler, wrote a paper trying to capture how it feels to be in at least a segment of her age cohort. She’s given me permission to quote from it.

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came Sept. 11. That was followed by the highly moralistic language of George W. Bush’s war on terror: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

But Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire led to humiliation, not triumph. Americans, Buhler writes, “emerged from the experience both dismissive of foreign intervention as a tool of statecraft as well as wary of the moral language used to justify it.”

Then came the financial crisis, the other formative event for today’s students. The root of the crisis was in the financial world. But the pain was felt outside that world. “The capitalist system, with its promise of positive-sum gains for all, appeared brutal and unpredictable.”

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while American scores are middle of the pack.

In sum, today’s graduates enter a harsher landscape. Immediate postgrad life, Buhler writes, will probably bear a depressing resemblance to Hannah Horvath’s world on “Girls.” The hit song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “is less a fashion statement, more a looming financial reality.”

Buhler argues that the group she calls Cynic Kids “don’t like the system — however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change. Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.”

A Brookings Institution survey found that only 10 percent of young people agree with the statement, “America should be more globally proactive.” The Occupy movement, Buhler notes, “launched more traffic jams than legislation.” The Arab Spring seemed like a popular awakening but has not fulfilled its promise.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mind-set is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ … can retard action. … The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

She suggests calling this state of mind the Tinder Effect, referring to the app that lets you scroll through hundreds of potential romantic partners, but that rarely leads to a real-life encounter.

Buhler’s most comprehensive disquiet is with the meritocratic system itself. It rewards an obsessive focus on individual improvement: “Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

She wonders if the educated class is beginning to look at the less-educated class — portrayed on TV in shows like “Teen Mom 2” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — as a distant, dysfunctional spectacle. She also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

And, yes, I gave her an A.

Protecting kids from failure

The case for self-esteem, success, and even an occasional participation trophy









It isn’t usually spelled out quite so bluntly, but an awful lot of parenting practices are based on the belief that the best way to get kids ready for the painful things that may happen to them later is to make sure they experience plenty of pain while they’re young.

I call this BGUTI (rhymes with duty), which is the acronym of Better Get Used To It.

If adults allow—or perhaps even require—children to play a game in which the point is to slam a ball at someone before he or she can get out of the way, or hand out zeroes to underscore a child’s academic failure, or demand that most young athletes go home without even a consolation prize (in order to impress upon them the difference between them and the winners), well, sure, the kids might feel lousy—about themselves, about the people around them, and about life itself—but that’s the point. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and the sooner they learn that, the better they’ll be at dealing with it.

The corollary claim is that if we intervene to relieve the pain, if we celebrate all the players for their effort, then we’d just be coddling them and giving them false hopes. A little thanks-for-playing trophy might allow them to forget, or avoid truly absorbing, the fact that they lost. Then they might overestimate their own competence and fall apart later in life when they learn the truth about themselves (or about the harshness of life).

The case for BGUTI is, to a large extent, a case for failure. The argument is that when kids don’t get a hoped-for reward, or when they lose a contest, they’ll not only be prepared for more of the same but will be motivated to try harder next time. An essay on this very blog last year, titled “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” cued an enormous on-line amen chorus. The journalist Paul Tough informed us, “If you want to develop [kids’] character, you let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else.” A casual Web search produces tens of thousands of similar declarations.

Unlike the charge that children are spoiled, which has been around forever, there was a time when it would have seemed surprising to make a case for failure because it up-ends the expected order. It’s logical to think that success is good and failure is bad; we want to help kids succeed and reassure them about their capabilities. But listen to this: Failure can actually be helpful!  It’s possible to feel too good about yourself! Parents may be hurting their children by helping them!

These messages presumably raised eyebrows at first because they were unexpected and counterintuitive. Except now they aren’t. People are still telling this story as if it represents a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom, but the fact is that almost everyone else has been saying the same thing for some time now. It has become the conventional wisdom. Indeed, the notion that failure is beneficial, or that kids today are overprotected or suffer from inflated self-esteem, is virtually the only message on these subjects that we’re likely to hear.  Continue reading

Transforming Singapore Education

Time to transform Singapore education

Singapore can consider a radical educational experiment: Set up a prototype full school that is more child-centric, and provides a genuine alternative to the existing system.

Published on Oct 19, 2013
By Laurence Lien, For The Straits Times
RECENTLY, I went to Finland on an education study trip. Much has been said about the Finnish education system, but it is only by being physically present, with all one’s senses and faculties engaged, that the potential lessons strike home.

I visited a full school, with classes from pre-primary to Grade 9, and was struck by many images.

First, the school was an oasis of calm. Teachers spoke in measured tones, while pupils were serenely animated. The joy of learning was evident, unpunctured by frequent graded assessments, which were prohibited for those younger than 12 years old.

A child-centred philosophy permeated the school. In the pre-school class I observed, each child had an individualised six-page development plan, jointly signed by parents and teacher. The first piece of information collected was the child’s comments, with questions like “Do you like to come to pre-school?”, “What things can you decide yourself in pre-school?” and “What would you like to learn?”.

A key emphasis is the parent-teacher partnership. Indeed, the Finnish national curriculum explicitly aims to support families in their parenting tasks, not vice versa.

Inclusivity is widely practised. Resources are directed at those in most need of them, with a high level of support for those with special needs. Children with special needs, accounting for some 10 per cent of the school enrolment, were mostly integrated into every class. Roving teachers work with the more physically and intellectually challenged ones separately, where necessary.

Obviously, Singapore cannot copy the Finnish education system wholesale. We do not currently have its egalitarian culture and its long-standing respect of the teaching profession.

But we can surely learn some things. They include the principle of the unharried child, child-centricity and inclusiveness. Ultimately, what is the purpose of education? What are parents’ aspiration for their children and development?

I can speak as a parent to three boys, aged 11, nine and six. I want my children to be developed holistically as whole persons. I wish for them to witness and practise values every moment, so that values become part of their being. I hope they will become lifelong lovers of learning, motivated to acquire new knowledge to serve and transform society. I desire their school to be a genuine community that reflects a society that I want to live in – warm, collaborative, inclusive and oriented towards the common good.  Continue reading

Finnish education vs SG

It’s been more than a little difficult to stay updated what with work becoming all-consuming, but I’ll try to post up some good op-eds and interesting reads more frequently in the weeks to come. I can’t quite remember why I didn’t post this one up on education – a two-part commentary by TODAY on the Finnish education system vs the Singapore one. It’s occasionally depressing (if not heart breaking) to read students rant about the local system championing only ‘rote learning’ and bemoaning the levels of stress, given that so much work goes into avoiding precisely that – okay, more of the former than the latter.  I suppose in a country where more-is-more, something’s got to give. Other commentators seem to think otherwise: we are an innovative, response-driven system that allows for experimentation, even failure. A lot of good work goes on in the Primary schools like this report here

More on the Finnish system here:

In sum: No standardised national exams till 18 or 19, high degrees of flexibility and teacher autonomy, stringent teacher training and quality of mentorship for beginning teachers.

Contextually, SG and the Finland/Denmark/Norway/Sweden are poles apart, but there is something to be learnt about cultivating and supporting a more autonomous teaching culture, a blunting of the standardised-testing instrument, and fundamentally, a  broadening of the definition of what it means to succeed. We cannot allow fordism to seep into the heart-work of teaching, and release students batch-by-batch as economic beings rather than transformational beings.

Relationship between level of education and earnings – flawed?

GREATER standardisation and computerisation of white-collar work and an increase in graduate numbers might be challenging the notion that ‘learning equals earning’.

So say British social scientists Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton in their book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises Of Education, Jobs And Incomes. Speaking to The Straits Times, Professor Brown, 55, from Cardiff University, said a university education is better seen as an opportunity to pursue subjects students are passionate about and find intellectually exciting.

Changing how they choose, he added, ‘would also offer Singapore a better chance of creating a new generation of innovators and inventors who go that extra mile because they are doing it out of genuine interest rather than simply for the money’.

Policymakers worldwide regularly link tertiary education to individual and national economic advancement. A knowledge-based economy, in fact, promotes the belief that more highly educated workers are needed to do the world’s thinking, while workers in emerging economies are limited to low-skill, low-wage jobs in manufacturing or service work, such as in call centres.

The thinking was this: Going to college equals writing a cheque with a lifetime guarantee of a well-paid job.

Yet underlying assumptions to this might be flawed. When he and his fellow authors spoke to business leaders and policymakers in China, India and South Korea, as well as those in the United States, Britain and Germany, they discovered there was a global auction for high-skill, low-wage work.

Employees may want to increase the value of their labour and earn higher wages, but companies wanting to maximise profits aim to lower their labour costs. So they will go where they can find workers with the skills they need, but who are prepared to accept more modest wages. Continue reading

Liberal Arts – different in Yale and NUS?

Two staff reporters for the News, Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, traveled to Singapore over spring break, interviewing more than 80 sources on the founding of Yale-NUS College — how Singaporeans view the project, how the liberal arts function in Singapore and how the country’s values differ from those on Yale’s campus. This is part two of the three-part series. (Read part 1and part 3.)

SINGAPORE — On other days, the giant halls in the National University of Singapore’s Sports & Recreation Centre might feel empty. But the 18,000 Singaporean students who passed through campus on March 17 and 18 for the NUS Open House entered rooms packed with booths from all of the NUS’s 16 schools and countless other student programs.

This year, tucked in a corner next to a booth for the NUS Business School, there was a new option on display. Under a sign that read “1 + 1 = 3,” Yale-NUS admissions representatives fielded questions from curious students about how Yale-NUS, the country’s first liberal arts college, will recreate Yale’s academic model in a Singaporean setting.

Although the booth looked similar in appearance to its neighbors at the open house, Yale-NUS will differ drastically in its academic structure from its peer institutions in Singapore.

Yale and NUS administrators have said their first priority is crafting “a unique and powerful education,” but they face the challenge of attracting students to a new school with an unfamiliar educational model.


In a nation where most undergraduate degrees are offered in vocational subjects such as dentistry, engineering, business and law, some still understand the concept of “arts” as exclusively fine arts, rather than broad-based learning.

“Liberal arts is a misnomer; Asians think it means music, dance and drama,” Yale-NUS governing board chair Kay Kuok told the Straits Times in an interview last November.

The Ministry of Education has previously brought elements of foreign educational models back to its own universities through 60 international partnerships with academic institutions and internal programs like the NUS University Scholars Program (USP). The USP allows for more academic breadth than most NUS programs, though students still take 70 percent of their classes within their majors. Continue reading

Yale-NUS: A win-win for all?

IN THE autumn of next year, when the eager Yale freshmen converge on New Haven, Connecticut, they will be joined by classmates thousands of kilometres away on the school’s satellite campus in Singapore.

A joint venture with the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS promises to ‘draw on the best elements of the American liberal arts tradition, but reshape and re-imagine the curriculum and collegiate experience for Asia’. What this reshaping and reimagining actually means has been a source of concern for many at Yale. Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, and its government has been criticised for crackdowns on free speech, including the 2010 arrest of British author Alan Shadrake after the publication of his book on the death penalty in Singapore.

The Yale faculty introduced a resolution last month demanding that the university ‘respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination, and full political freedom both on the Yale-NUS campus and in Singapore as a whole’. Broad statements of mission such as this are well and good. But as other American universities have learnt – New York University in Abu Dhabi, Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, China, and Cornell, Georgetown and Northwestern in Qatar – the allure of adding an international outpost at little to no cost thanks to generous foreign-government support is hard to resist.

Establishing a campus culture

A MORE productive exercise is to consider what the business of liberal arts education will look like in a country that doesn’t quite live up to the standards of Jeffersonian democracy.

I worked for two years at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar doing student development, a job chiefly concerned with all those intangibles that lead to the much sought-after ‘vibrant campus community’ of college brochure fame.

The translation of the American college ethos was my job, and when I first began, I understood this more or less to mean mimicking activities and organisations found on the typical US campus.

The opening of minds and the entertainment of ‘subversive’ ideas are essential to the DNA of the American university, but they are not qualities that came without struggle. Opening a liberal arts college in an illiberal place is an audacious act that must be met with a dose of realism. Establishing a campus culture that promotes critical thinking requires administrators and professors who are willing to lead by example in the classroom and in their daily lives, and to grapple with uncomfortable issues. Continue reading