Is the honeymoon period over for liberal arts in Asia?

Saikat Majumdar surveys developments from the Gulf to South Korea in light of the closure of Yale-NUS College

十一月 25, 2021
Cloud light art installation people walking with a honeymoon couple in front to illustrate Is  the honeymoon period over for liberal arts  in Asia?
Source: Getty/istock montage

For many of us teaching in the liberal arts colleges and universities that have opened in recent years across Asia, the Yale-NUS split came as a shock.

On 27 August, the National University of Singapore announced that Yale-NUS College – a 10-year collaboration with Yale University – would close and be merged into a new interdisciplinary honours college within NUS called New College. From 2025, Yale will have only an “advisory” role.

The announcement, which was widely reported around the world, brought a jolt of historical irony. Back in 2015, I’d heard Peter Salovey, then the president of Yale, speak on liberal arts education in Asia. At the time, I was in the process of moving from California to Delhi, to be part of the early cohort of faculty at the new Ashoka University and to set up a department of creative writing. After Salovey’s talk, hosted in Delhi by Ashoka, I asked him why Singapore, a state not particularly known for free thought, was collaborating on the American model of liberal education. His response struck me as prescient: the government of Singapore knew that a messy kind of democracy was coming to the country soon and that a liberal arts education was the best way to prepare its citizens for it. There was a new excitement for innovative liberal arts education in Asia, and I felt a part of it myself.

More specifically, I recognised a culture of interdisciplinary creativity such as I’d seen in my previous institution, Stanford University, translated into a new Asian demand for innovative, multidisciplinary education. At the heart of this demand were the professional needs of rapidly evolving knowledge economies. It was the kind of interdisciplinarity that went beyond the narrowly technocratic or financial aptitude that is the core mandate of specialised schools of business or technology. It entered a broader domain of human thought, behaviour and knowledge. It evoked the human-centred business models of Peter Drucker, who, back in 1959, coined the term “knowledge worker”, predicting that the future corporation would have to balance significant social, economic and human dimensions.

This liberal arts model, with obvious corporate enthusiasm behind it, was inevitably elite and expensive. It was generously supported by philanthropic entrepreneurs from Asia’s new digital economy. It evoked suspicion as well as differing levels of enthusiasm within the larger Asian landscapes of colonially structured, government-directed higher education systems of raggedly uneven quality. But it was fairly clear why an economically ambitious and technologically progressive state such as Singapore was interested in it – and why it also appealed to the forms of private philanthropic higher education emerging around some of the major cities of India.

To understand the contradictions that have begun to disrupt this trajectory and to examine the sustainability of liberal arts in Asia today, it helps to take a quick look at how this form of education developed across different nations over the past few decades.

The most striking success story comes from South Korea. In a significant discussion published in the New Republic in 2010, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, argues that the foundation of this success lies in the country’s long-held Confucian tradition of humanistic education. Japanese domination in the 1940s represented a violent onslaught against this tradition, when Koreans were limited to low-level vocational education and schools were only allowed to use Japanese. The crucial recovery of national identity involved an invocation of Confucian humanistic education, but in a newly democratised form that made space for women and the working classes. American missionaries played a deeply constructive role in helping this modernising process.

A student walking past signage for the Yale-NUS College in Singapore as described in the article

Although the educational success story of South Korea is also driven by government initiatives, such as universal secondary education, Nussbaum ascribes significant credit to what she calls “a productive synergy between Confucian nationalism and American progressive education”. The result, she writes, “has been the widely democratized, pluralistic, and market-driven education system that obtains today”.

This, however, has been a rare instance of creative synergy; nothing like it has quite happened in other major Asian countries.

Take Hong Kong. Since the handover in 1997, the city has been moving away from the British system of single-subject degrees towards a more broad-based liberal education. The most obvious reasons were those I have already described: the country’s projection of itself as a service- and knowledge-based economy and an economic mediator between the East and the West, which called for a population with a more well-rounded education. This was what attracted the support of business figures such as Po Chung, the co-founder of the Asia-Pacific branch of the shipping giant DHL.

But the introduction in 2009 of “liberal studies” as a mandatory subject in Hong Kong’s secondary education, with the specific aim of promoting critical thinking, has been intensely controversial. While some have lauded it as an exemplary curriculum which broke away from the rote learning of the mainland, pro-China leaders have criticised it as an instigator of student unrest – especially since the pro-democracy protests of 2014. It is interesting that liberal studies was introduced by a Beijing-controlled regime, but as Robert Spires, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Richmond, has pointed out, it may have been intended as a minor concession to deflect attention from larger forms of administrative authoritarianism.

Last November, it was announced that liberal studies at school would be renamed and recast to include more content about mainland China and less about current affairs. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam blamed the education system for fuelling the 2019 pro-democracy protests by teaching children “false and biased information”.

If we look at Asia more generally, it is clear that the liberally educated graduate, as opposed to one professionally cast in a single direction, has great appeal for employers in the 21st century, in which many skills and careers seem to be ephemeral. But, as the Hong Kong situation aptly demonstrates, “liberal” is a troublingly expansive word that refuses to stay within an apolitically conceived disciplinary framework.

We can see some of the contradictions when authoritarian regimes seek to institute liberal arts education for various reasons of their own. In a 2019 article for Indian newspaper The Print, Anushka Prasad, an MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, describes a conversation with Gan Yang, a dean at Tsinghua University, who pointed out that the Chinese government’s investment in liberal arts education was not intended so much to produce active citizens or independent critical thinkers in the Western sense as to cultivate and promote traditional Chinese culture and thought in the Confucian tradition.

That view is endorsed by Walter Mignolo, William Hane Wannamaker distinguished professor of Romance studies at Duke University, which has a campus in Kunshan, near Shanghai. “China wants to know what the West already knows and to take advantage – not to be converted to liberal education but to appropriate Western liberal education in order to set up their own system of education," he says. “It is clear that the government is not westernising.”

Ethnic chauvinism is also obvious in the Indian BJP-led government’s invocation of a tradition of liberal arts rooted in classical Hinduism in its 2020 National Education Policy. Indeed, debates about the meaning of free speech and the right to dissent on university campuses were exploding just at the time when disciplines were opening up to another kind of freedom in elite higher education spaces. While student protests and brutal state suppression raged through the public Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in 2016, I could not help wondering, in the pages of this magazine, what right there would be to such dissent on the new private campuses. Little did I know that Ashoka, that very summer, would be bitterly split over a petition about military activities in Kashmir, leading to the resignation of some of those involved.

The stark opposition between economic openness and political restriction in parts of East and South-east Asia – and now, increasingly, in South Asia – explains the contradictions experienced by the project of liberal arts education in these countries. Looking further west, the Gulf countries have also seen substantial investment in liberal arts education and collaboration with American universities. There, we find not so much the direct suppression of free thought and speech – against which at least the American overseas campuses are more or less protected – but various other kinds of unfreedom which reflect the political climate, as well as a certain traditional and bureaucratic mindset about education.

In these countries, too, access to liberal arts education in the newly opened universities is largely limited to the elite. They are, according to Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University, “colleges for the privileged”, partly because “profit-based universities have limited scholarship opportunities and do not offer student loans”. A significant insulation from life outside their rarefied campuses – a consistent feature of the new liberal arts universities across Asia – is possibly also what maintains a certain freedom within these institutions and protects them from social prejudices and governmental restrictions.

Ian Almond, professor of world literature at Georgetown University, has taught at Georgetown Qatar for the past eight years.

“We are in a bit of a Washington bubble,” he tells me, “our VPN [virtual private computer network] on campus is set to Washington! And I’m not sure I’ve had any interference that I’ve noticed.” Once, he recalls, the university planned a debate on “whether God is a woman”, which the dean had to cancel “as he got a lot of heat”. But the cancellation annoyed even the conservative students since “the Georgetown brand is ‘sold’ in Qatar on the basis of a free-speech campus”.

But while government interference in his teaching has been almost non-existent, Almond feels that self-censorship might be a bigger issue. “I still try to show films which have explicit scenes without editing them,” he says, “although I realise that now, if a film has too many such scenes, I would probably choose judiciously which sections to show. I know many of my colleagues experience some version of this.”

If the bulk of higher education in the Gulf, as Gabra writes, “remains highly centralised, with the government controlling curriculums, admissions, and recruitment”, the socio-political climate inside a campus such as Georgetown Qatar (where about only half the students are Qatari) speaks of a very different world. “It is strange,” Almond wrote to me, “the extent to which what people, rightly or wrongly, perceive as ‘woke’ vibes in the US reappear on our Qatar campus – here, on the other end of the planet, there are very similar arguments amongst our students about Black Lives Matter, trans rights, colonialism and all the issues that get discussed on American campuses.” He feels that one “certainly wouldn’t find this outside of the campus in Qatar” – which is “part of the appeal of GUQ”. Yet it also means that the “campus has a reputation, amongst local Qataris, of robbing students of their Islamic beliefs and making them cynical about everything”.

In any event, the alienation of the American campus from the local socio-political climate is very stark.

In some contexts, systemic, structural and social factors all present a challenge to the new liberal arts model. Writing in 2013 about her experience of setting up Effat College (later University) for women at the request of Princess Lolowah al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the now-retired academic Marcia Grant outlines the barriers to allowing students to gain a broad, cross-disciplinary education. Since students in Saudi Arabia are streamed into either the sciences or the humanities before high school, it was very difficult for them to experience knowledge and practice across the disciplinary divide, as Effat had intended, following the liberal arts model.

The segregation of disciplines, reports Grant, went with the “segregation of sexes”, which decreed that “no men could enter the campus while students were at the school”. (This vigilance extended to ensuring that “the buildings were constructed in such a way that men could perform repairs to the overhead air conditioning system without walking on the campus”.) The hiring of male professors in the women’s college was initially impossible, although this problem was later circumvented by obtaining permission from the students’ families and using closed-circuit television to deliver lectures on screen in the classrooms.

Although neither students nor their parents wanted this kind of segregated experience, as Grant points out, Islamist members of parliament and the university council continued to insist on it. “Mixed with these deadening effects,” she goes on, “are fundamental flaws in a tertiary education system that depends upon an ill-suited consultant army; a dearth of locally generated, relevant learning material; and a myopic educational focus”.

It is clear that across Asia there are deeply entrenched obstacles to a mode of higher education that is liberal in multiple senses – disciplinary and epistemological but also social and political.

Smaller bureaucratic restrictions about curricula are sometimes symptoms of larger ideological resistances. The Gulf campuses, Yale-NUS and the private universities in India have so far only been able to exist as islands. This is a serious limitation in itself, but it gets aggravated beyond repair when resentment about their insulated existence deepens in the world outside and in the government and begins to corrode their protected status. This is partly what happened at Yale-NUS, and it has been happening to my own institution, Ashoka, from the uproar over the Kashmir petition in 2016 to the controversial resignation of two senior faculty members earlier this year. The genuine enthusiasm for multidisciplinary universities in India’s National Education Policy 2020 is poorly matched with the state’s consistent suppression of student dissent on campuses across the nation.

American liberal arts education developed as humble, local and provincial. While closely linked to the church, it was free from the larger structures of government. Without the cosmopolitan ambitions of the medieval European university, “the American college in the nineteenth century was a hometown entity”, writes education historian David Larabee in his 2017 book A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. In a land of competing churches, founding a college was an effective way to “plant the flag and promote the faith”. A college put a sleepy country town on the map, so that it could demand a railway stop and pitch to be the county seat (or even the state capital), and thus raise the value of local real estate. This possibly explains the remote and provincial locations of so many liberal arts colleges in the US.

Later in the century, two very different elements were imported from Europe that would blend surprisingly well with the institution’s foundation in the local community: the German research university and the British undergraduate college. This was an unexpected, even accidental development: three very contradictory forces – populist, elite and practical, as Larabee calls them – coming together to shape one of the most formidable institutional forces of the 20th century – although one currently facing aggravating challenges of its own. Except perhaps in South Korea, such a harmonious combination of local and global forces has been largely absent in Asia.

The liberal arts model requires significant freedom and a certain amount of decentralisation – institutions and faculty must have the liberty to choose their own curricula and adapt them to local needs. But with freedom comes responsibility. I’m not sure many institutions and their faculty want that responsibility. I have seen colleges in India gain autonomy and yet change practically nothing in their curricula or pedagogy. And many governments remain keen to centralise higher education and unwilling to grant significant liberties to institutions.

I think it’s fair to say that the honeymoon period for the liberal arts in Asia is over. Such educational initiatives are still very sustainable, if only for historical reasons – the rising youth population (compared with a declining college-age population in the US), significant student talent sharpened by the traditional Asian attention to education, the expanding middle class and its increasingly ambitious vision for higher education. The needs of business and corporate interests in the new global economy also point to employees shaped by a broad, multidisciplinary education.

But it’s clear that liberal arts institutions are likely to encounter much envy, suspicion and even hostility within their own societies. In nations with histories of state-sponsored, socialist education, institutional models based on private philanthropy are unwelcome to the leftist intelligentsia. To some degree, this suspicion is justified. The very nature of liberal arts education makes it resource-intensive; the perpetual challenge is whether it can be both intellectually exclusive and socially inclusive at the same time.

As it is currently conceived, Asian liberal arts education is likely to continue in institutions that exist as islands. Yet if the mistrust between the islands and the oceans surrounding them stretches beyond a certain point, the compact, whether tacit or explicit, will break. That is what seems to have driven the disintegration of Yale-NUS.

Saikat Majumdar is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University. He is grateful for research input from Harshita Tripathi.



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