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Inaugural class at Yale-NUS hits the books

As members of the Yale Class of 2017 arrive on campus today, a much smaller group of college freshmen on the other side of the world has already been together for seven weeks. The inaugural class of Yale-NUS College, the much-anticipated, much-debated joint venture between Yale and the National University of Singapore, is now finishing its second week of classes on the NUS campus after more than a month of orientation activities in Singapore and New Haven.

I just got back from a visit to Yale-NUS, where I sat in on classes and talked to some students and faculty. I'll be writing a feature about it for the magazine this fall, but for now here are a few quick impressions:

• The students—150 of them, 62 percent from Singapore and the rest from 25 other countries—are clearly excited and engaged, both with their coursework and with the project of making a college community from scratch. And as dean of faculty Charles Bailyn ’81 reminded me, there are no upperclassmen around to impress, so the freshman enthusiasm is untempered by "cynicism and posturing."

• More than the multicultural nature of the curriculum or the mission to introduce American-style liberal education to Asia, the most remarkable thing about the school academically is its rethinking of what undergraduate education could be, not just in a Asia but in America, too. Without academic departments and other existing constituencies, the Yale-NUS faculty was able to step back and ask what a liberally-educated student should learn in the twenty-first century, then design a curriculum to that end from scratch. (The faculty's curriculum report, released last spring, is both a blueprint for the college and a critique of liberal education as it is currently practiced.)

• To that end, the school's common curriculum is a fascinating construction. All first-year students take the same four courses for the first semester: Literature and the Humanities, Philosophy and Political Thought, Comparative Soical Institutions, and Scientific Inquiry. (If it sounds a bit like Yale's Directed Studies program, that's not a coinicidence. But in this case, everyone in the freshman class is taking it, the subject matter is not just western but global, and there is a science component.) At least in these early days, faculty are attending each other's lectures and drawing parallels and comparisons across classes in their own sections and seminars.

• While some Yale faculty and alumni have serious reservations about the venture—in part because of the authoritarian bent of the Singaporean government—students and faculty there say freedom of expression is not an issue on campus, and some faculty say they genuinely don't understand what the fuss is about. For what it's worth, even though homosexual activity is officially illegal in Singapore, Yale-NUS already has a student group dedicated to "gender, sexuality and feminist issues" puckishly named "The G Spot."


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