Elizabeth and I got a taxi at the airport and quickly realized that Singapore is nothing like India. The streets are quiet and orderly. Modern looking buildings are nestled amongst a surprising number of trees and gardens. The architecture feels like a statement to remind people just how old the skyscrapers in places like New York really are, and the optics of the city quickly made an impression on us. We had spent months in places defined by their connection to this past but Singapore clearly wanted to define itself differently. Elizabeth turned from the window, “I think this might be the future.”
A few days later, we visited the campus of Yale-NUS, a new university built in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Yale-NUS is so young that they haven’t even had a graduating class yet, but the place is filled with a sense of creation and possibility. The project was undertaken with the idea of taking the best from each partner institution, but it’s also been seen as an opportunity to do away with dated norms that might hinder how a university should operate in the 21st century.
For example, the department system for faculty that defines American institutions, like Yale, was restructured to promote more cross disciplinary work. Instead of departments being in charge of their own hiring, professors from a range of disciplines are pulled into the interview process. There are courses that are co-taught by a science professor and a humanities professor. The organizational system that has become set in something stronger than stone in the US, has been ignored here in favor of a system better designed to prepare students for an interconnected world.
Curriculum has been re-shaped as well. Yale-NUS occupies a unique place in the intersections between East and West, and the courses reflect that in a more organic way than most universities. In a philosophy class, for instance, Aristotle and Confucius are read and compared in consecutive weeks. Eastern and Western schools of thought are not divided and pushed into different courses or departments the way they often are in the US. Instead they are discussed in ways that illustrate how their relevance has fused together in the modern world.
This organizational decision by the University is complimented by the natural diversity of the students. Half the students are from Singapore, which can mean family histories connected to China, India, Malaysia or just about anywhere else in Asia. And then there are students who come directly from those countries, as well as places as diverse as France, Idaho, and Jamaica. As we sat and talked with an administrator in the Agora (a student named café area), he pointed out that the four students working together across from us each came from a different continent. “These types of communities” he explained, “allow students to realize that some of the most basic assumptions they have about society may be thought of differently by someone else.”
Starting from scratch, Yale-NUS has also chosen to elevate student voice and leadership to a degree that might be untenable in more established institutions. The University knows that there will be opportunities for improvement as they grow, and they’ve made student feedback a central part of that process. When we pressed students to talk about what they didn’t like about Yale-NUS, they discussed how they had given feedback about certain things and also how the University had already moved to address that feedback. They then went on to talk about how exciting it was to be somewhere where it was up to them to create all of the clubs and student organizations. Almost everyone they knew was involved in starting some sort of club or project. They bragged about how the national news had picked up stories from their fledgling student newspaper and generally relished the sense of power they felt in being part of something new.
Students have also chosen to create a culture with much less of the partying that defines many US campuses. This might be why Yale-NUS students who study for a semester at an Ivy League school in the States often report that the work was much easier than at Yale-NUS. As a French student we spoke with explained, half-jokingly, “We are a tea drinking campus.”
At Yale-NUS there is a sense of fresh optimism. The idea that tomorrow is in our hands and we’re going to make it alright. It reminded me of how America likes to think of itself, but it also grounded me in how far we’ve drifted from that ideal.
Like much of Singapore, Yale-NUS has set out to learn from the best that the West had to offer, and then to see what more can be done. We saw this theme crop up again as we visited one of their top-performing high schools and their National Institute of Education.
Obviously it’s not fair to compare a country that borders two oceans to an island city-state like Singapore. We are not Singapore and shouldn’t be. But if we look at what they’ve accomplished here and say, “We can’t do that here. We have too many challenges.” Then we’ll only drift farther from the ideals we say define us.