Last week, I traveled to Singapore to attend the opening of a new liberal-arts college campus. That college is Yale-NUS—the product of a partnership forged about seven years ago between Yale and the National University of Singapore. Students and faculty have been working at the institution for a few years already, but this was its official inauguration. Pericles Lewis,Yale-NUS’s founding president, joked that the campus’s coming-out party marked a rare festivity: It’s not every day that one is able to celebrate the opening of a new liberal-arts college.
Here we were, in Singapore, to launch a new American-style college, while back in the United States the principles of that model—broad, contextual, and conceptual study—were under enormous pressure. The irony wasn’t lost on any of us. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, Korea, and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration, and experimentation that are key to the American traditions of liberal education. These are traditions that I, as the president of Wesleyan University and author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, champion.