Yale-NUS conference draws participants from across the United States to campus

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Andrew Delblanco during his talk, "Making College Make Sense: Opportunities and Obstacles," at the conference. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

Over 90 thought leaders in higher education from over 40 liberal arts colleges and universities around the country gathered on campus for “Globalizing the Liberal Arts,” a symposium and workshop hosted by Yale-NUS College to discuss innovation in liberal arts and science education as well as the future of higher education.

The conference is part of a broader series of discussions Yale-NUS is promoting on the renewal and innovations of college curricula. The first symposium took place in October 2015 in Singapore to commemorate the inauguration of Yale-NUS’s new campus.

Kel Ginsberg, acting director of the New Haven office of Yale-NUS, said that it was important for Yale-NUS to have the conference because, while there is increasing interest in liberal arts programs in Asia and Europe, these programs are frequently met with skepticism in the United States. Pericles Lewis, president of Yale-NUS College, agreed and added that the lessons learned in founding Yale-NUS could be useful to “curricular innovation in the United States.”

“In some way, all of us in higher education are exploring questions relating to the role of the liberal arts in a 21st-century education, and this symposium and accompanying workshop offer a variety of occasions to delve deeply into the most prominent questions, opportunities, and challenges. As we proceed, we hope to collaboratively develop curricular and pedagogical innovations that may be useful in all of our classrooms,” he explained.

The four-day conference included guest speakers, panels, and a workshop portion to address some of the most critical problems facing liberal arts. Ginsberg said they invited institutions that are working to development a new curriculum to participate with the hope of finding ways the liberal arts could be “strengthened.”

“Our colleagues hope to draw on their experience and lessons learned in creating a new liberal arts college in Asia to discuss curriculum innovation in the United States and join together with other faculty and senior staff from liberal arts and sciences institutions to focus on the renewal of college curricula,” she said.

In her talk, Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said a liberal education has “always been about cultivating broad knowledge of the wider world” and the challenge is to “provide big picture knowledge that is meaningful” to everyone around the world.

“Embedded in this vision is a conception of liberal education that is absolutely key to preparing people to live in a pluralistic world and a shared global and civic community … There is no significant problem that is best looked at only by a disciplinary view,” she said.

Among the topics discussed were the common curriculum and its value in a liberal arts education. While Yale does not have a common curriculum — instead requiring distributional requirements in different disciplinary areas and skills — Yale-NUS requires all students to complete the common curriculum in the first two years of study. Lewis, who helped design the curriculum, said the requirements create a “community of learning” among the student body — citing as example the fact that Yale-NUS students renamed the student center “Plato’s Cave” last Halloween.

Andrew Delblanco, professor of American studies at Columbia University, told similar stories of students and alumni finding community through the core curriculum. Borrowing a phrase from English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, Delblanco also called a common curriculum a “gift of interval” to students.

“[It’s] a chance to pause, to look around, to test oneself without the test results determining your fate in life; to experiment socially as well as intellectually before one is engulfed by the responsibilities of adulthood. This means slowing down the clock. It means demanding of students that they put off the moment of declaring specialization,” he explained.

During the workshop portion of the conference, participants were split up into six groups according to their individual areas of expertise and were asked to consider different issues that have affected Yale-NUS and other institutions with the goal of developing a proposal for a new set of programs or courses to help address the problem. Ginsberg said she hopes that participants will build upon the proposals and discussions to “strengthen” liberal arts around the United States.

For more information about Yale-NUS, visit the website.

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