Built on sand? (should have been a tent)

The ideal campus to which I alluded yesterday (Bigger Pond, Please) was attempted, not just once but several times– I think of Santiniketan, Beida in the 1920s, the Southwestern Associated Universities during the Pacific War, and Yale-NUS College, and I’m sure there are more examples out there.

Examples, I’d say, of open inquiry conducted by students and teachers in institutions sited in Asia, dealing with materials and questions specific to Asia, independently from and when necessary in opposition to the ruling authorities. This rough definition would exclude the kind of education conducted in places subjected to political constraints on subject matter and analytic approach; it would exclude education that is primarily intended to replace Asian modes of inquiry with imported ones seen as better or higher; it would frown on missionary, nativist and technicist programs alike. It would put aside models of education that conceive of the teacher and the textbook as authoritative and put the student in the position of accepting that authority. It would have as its basic activity the parsing of texts, the questioning of assumptions, the search for implication and application. The place where this activity occurs would be protected from political and economic threats and manipulation. Habits of creative and destructive hypothesis-formation, hierarchy-neutralization, and platform-sharing would go out into the wider society from the small society constituted by the educational project.

That’s more or less what the examples I mentioned were trying to achieve, each one, of course, in its environment and subject to different conditions.

I was shocked the other day to learn that Yale-NUS College was disbanded all of a sudden, in a single meeting at which faculty and students had no opportunity to speak. Students currently enrolled will be able to complete their degrees by 2025. Thereafter the whole purpose-built operation will be absorbed into the undergraduate programs of the National University of Singapore, which, though a fine institution, was not created to offer a small-group, liberal-arts option under conditions of cultural pluralism. Pluralism— including possibilities of dissent.

An admirable experiment vanishes by bureaucratic fiat.(*)  

Yale put the best face it could on the matter, since there wasn’t anything they could do. The venture was, contrary to popular belief, entirely paid for and owned by Singapore’s Ministry of Education. Yale lent its name and its expertise. Which is not nothing! Yale got, as far as I know, no financial benefit from the deal.(**) If the whole thing had crashed and burned somehow, Yale would have lost some prestige, but I don’t think Yale was expecting this dénouement: I think Yale had expected that an institution bearing the Yale name was such a catch that the Singaporean administrators would have been swayed to bend to Yale’s model of education, at least until some impossible conflict had forced them to the pass. I’m not aware of any such conflict. Perhaps it is just the inertial tendency of one-party states to crush or absorb whatever falls in their jurisdiction and is not theirs.(***) I suppose somebody in NUS or the MOE thought it was time to capture a pawn. 

It’s too bad that the pawn was unprotected.

There have always been nay-sayers. One favored avenue is to accuse the partisans of such institutions of “missionary zeal.” As if the underlying argument was: we in the West (or in the Ivy League) have this thing called liberal education, and out of the goodness of our hearts we have chosen to bestow it on a uniquely favored group of Asians, so that they will convert to our ways and lead their benighted societies toward the light. I find one mark of the prevalence of this argument in a bit of punctuation. (When something has filtered down to the level of punctuation marks, you can be sure it has acquired the power of unconscious assumptions.) The excellent article by Colleen Lye and Petrus Liu in Interventions 2016, “Liberal Arts for Asians,” is often cited with a question mark at the end, as if the very possibility were inherently dubious. I energetically reject that hypothesis. People in Asia are just as good at forming a liberal culture of discussion as people anywhere else. Circumstances have sometimes favored their doing so, sometimes not. There’s a long history to be examined.

Another kind of critique is the pseudo-absolutist one. “You say ‘free from constraint,’ but your institution is constrained from the beginning by the élitist economic assumptions that allow some students in but not others, validate some teachers as having knowledge but not others, and thus your supposedly egalitarian seminar room merely confirms the massive inequality of society– you might as well be the Tory Party at prayer.” Such an Original-Sin theory of institutions makes it hard to start small and build. Unfortunately, opportunities to issue a cry from the hilltop and achieve instantaneous demolition of all bad things are rare. I’ll take the gradualist approach over the comfort of “I told you it wouldn’t work.”

I never had the chance to teach at Yale-NUS College, but I was involved in the initial discussions and outlining of the plan of studies that the first generation of faculty refined and improved. There were six or seven of us on the committee to form the college’s intellectual skeleton. How many majors, and of what kind? What role would general education play, versus professional formation? How could we integrate, not in a tokenistic spirit but seriously, the understanding of Confucius and Machiavelli, Mudan ting and Shakuntala, the Heart Sutra and Russell-Whitehead? And how could we make an impractical, impolitic academic program desirable to the Singapore educational ministry, accustomed to measurable and cost-adjustable markers of success?

We knew that we were dealing with a bossy state with a history of bearing down on journalists and opposition figures through laws that were not open to fundamental discussion. Article 377 was a particular focus of our worry. That is the law, inherited from British legal codes, that makes “sodomy” (i.e., same-sex sexual relations) punishable. The ruling party interpreted Article 377 in such a way as to prohibit “advocacy,” i.e., normalization, of homosexual relationships. To tear out the corresponding pages of the multicultural canons that we wanted students to read would mean leaving a lot of binders flapping emptily. We heard assurances from the Singaporean partners that society was changing, it was just a matter of time, the law was a relic on the books and awaited a controlling court decision to be voided, one couldn’t risk alienating the Muslim minority, and so on. We got what we thought were satisfactory guarantees of freedom of speech, opinion, inquiry and research. Those guarantees were later tested in practice– as we expected them to be–and proved to be less than iron-clad. Some talented faculty and students left or stayed away for that reason. Meanwhile, in the US, we attended the same-sex weddings of our friends, observed that civilization did not collapse, and hoped the rest of the world would come to think the same way.

One sign that the cultures– not of Asia and the US, but of Singapore’s ruling party and of liberal democracy–were crashing and clashing was a course cancellation in 2019. I would not have made that call. I would have invited those made nervous by the course to offer a reasoned statement of their views and to deepen the college public’s understanding of what dissent and resistance mean. Of course, that’s why I don’t get invited to head colleges, not that I am in the running anyway.

What brought down Yale-NUS was not, as far as I can see or suppose, Article 377, unbridgeable cultural difference, or the wickedness of neoliberalism. It was bureaucratic overreach, standardization, the managerial intolerance of an exception. Admirers of the supposed efficiency of dictatorship were seen to gloat.

So, okay, imperfect conditions, plus a hope of refining imperfection through dialogue. Sounds like Habermas, but Mencius, Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming would feel at home too. Imagine that a disciple of Mencius or Xunzi had taken the uncompromising stance of some of the opponents of “liberal arts for Asia”: that of the various kings of the Springs and Autumns period, none was practicing the actual Way of the Sage-Kings, and so none was worthy of engaging in dialogue. That would lead to a Daoist-hermit mode of non-engagement, which is fine– let’s boycott those wicked kings, and remain pure!– and since it correlates with a stance of “letting the world be the world, and reforming nothing,” we putative Liberal Arts Pioneers can wave them off into the woods.

Confucius, bless him, said 三軍可奪帥也,匹夫不可奪志也。 Which is, being interpreted: “A vast army– you can capture its general and take him away. But an ordinary man–you can’t capture his conscience and take it away.” That realization is really all you need to found a program in the Liberal Arts: an awareness of the difference between institutionalized power and intellectual conviction. I do believe (and if you want to accuse me of missionary zeal, here’s a big target painted on my back, have fun) that the slow tendency of world civilization is toward the validation of the claims of individual conscience over those of institutionalized power. But it’s never been easy, and if you want an easy life, you should probably not get mixed up in this stuff.


(*) Bureaucratic fiat— not quite the right term, because “fiat” means “let there be,” as in the memorable creation of light by You Know Who; and this is rather the opposite, a “let there not be,” which as a Latinist I should like to call a “neget” or a “deleatur.”  But that’s cumbersome. How about “ne-fiat”?

(**) The finances of the College are not disclosed to the public, but it doesn’t seem that a reverse subsidy to Yale occurs. See https://theoctant.org/edition/vi-2/allposts/news/yale-nus-release-financial-reports/. However, it is a curiously obsessive theme with Yale-NUS College’s detractors that Yale must be in it to “make a buck.” Failure of imagination induced by ambient neoliberalism?

(***) Singapore has more than one party. But the effective control of affairs has been in the hands of one party, and indeed of one dynasty, ever since independence, and there are significant obstacles to anyone who might wish to challenge its dominance.

One thought on “Built on sand? (should have been a tent)

  1. I remember that when Yale-NUS was announced, it was with ecstatic administrative glee and hyperbole. It was difficult not to think that this press-release tone hid some financial benefit for Yale. Now I almost wish Yale had had some economic skin in the game so that it could justifiably have done something, anything, to protect Yale-NUS.

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