Understanding liberal arts and its place in the Singapore education system

By October 15, 2019Current

TL;DR – A liberal arts grounding could certainly help develop a more active citizenry. 

Albert Einstein famously once said “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think”. This ability to critically analyse issues and express their opinions is something highly prized in liberal arts education. But was this what the recently cancelled “Dissent and Resistance” course at Yale-NUS really set out to teach?

A Straits Times report stated that the programme would look into modes of dissent from “citizen journalism to artistic works, from ‘accommodationist’ tactics such as pragmatic resistance to ‘radical’ strategies of civil disobedience”. Yale-NUS themselves felt that the proposed activities also included elements that may subject students to the risk of breaking the law, and incurring legal liabilities.

Liberal education is one thing, but using the guise of “fostering critical and independent thinking” to intentionally misguide students and push them towards actions that could be a threat to public peace… that is certainly a NO-NO in my book.

Minister Ong put it across well in his recent Parliament speech.

“I much prefer the test of an ordinary Singaporean exercising common sense. He would readily conclude that taking into consideration all the elements and all the personalities involved, this is a programme that was filled with motives and objectives other than learning and education,”

But does this mean we should not value liberal arts and its teachings in Singapore?

Broad-based and multidisciplinary in approach, liberal arts students are exposed to a wide range of disciplines to encourage flexibility in thinking and problem-solving. Students will be trained to develop the ability to approach problems from multiples angles.

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Liberal arts and the place it has in the Singapore society was also validated by Minister Ong – “In all our autonomous universities, there is an increasing focus on interdisciplinary learning and development of critical thinking skills in students,”

“Political dissent is certainly a legitimate topic of academic inquiry…but thinking critically is quite different from unthinkingly critical, and any course offered by our autonomous universities must be up to the mark,” he added.

Nominated MP Walter Theseira also chimed in

“We must accept as a society and as individuals that there is a right to question ideas, beliefs and policies, and to have one’s own ideas and actions be questioned critically and respectfully,”

Their thoughts resonate strongly with mine. The principle of political dissent and always being able to critically analyse and have an open discussion about issues is sound. But the manner in which it is done requires academic rigour. That, is the crux of the issue.

How liberal is too liberal?

Again, there are some pitfalls to extreme liberalism and activism. Need we elaborate on the classic example of Hong Kong.

Here, Minister Ong outlined four guiding principles that he called on educational institutions to “internalise” when deciding what activities should be allowed on campus:

  • Educational institutions must operate within the laws of Singapore.
  • Educational institutions must not deviate from their mission to advance education and maintain high academic standards.
  • Educational institutions should not be misused as platforms for partisan politics.
  • Educational institutions must recognise Singapore’s cultural and social context.

He stressed that academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy, for this would undermine the institution’s academic standards and public standing.

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Moving forward

While this was certainly an interesting test case, I’m quite sure we will not be seeing the last of such liberal arts courses. The Ministry of Education itself has given the stamp of approval for courses that encourage legitimate academic inquiry but perhaps, institutes of higher learning could draw from this incidence and place more emphasis on making sure proposed curriculums provide a wide enough range of perspectives for students to examine it in entirety, and not in isolation.

Singapore has gotten through our first 50 years on sheer grit and the brilliant foresight of our founding fathers. The next 50 years requires finesse to chart the path for Singapore. A liberal arts grounding could certainly help develop a citizenry that is more adapt to dealing with complexities of an ever changing world. Exposing youth to multiple disciplines would help in honing their world view and encouraging them to take initiative in social causes or policy-making processes, which would eventually affect their fellow Singaporeans.

Press on, Singapore. Here is to more (proper) public discourse in future!


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