Yale College’s much-celebrated venture into the wealthy island city-state of Singapore seemed a harmonious convergence, the host country paying all the bills of the Yale-National University of Singapore’s bills and Yale’s visibility and allure ascending among Southeast Asia’s burgeoning middle-class families.
Yet Singapore’s dismissal of Yale, announced late last month, illuminates a lot of what has driven the Taliban’s far-more brutal expulsion of America from Afghanistan: Americans’ own addiction to a drug cocktail of evangelical arrogance and materialist, militarist blundering.
Willful innocence of other countries and cultures has driven many American military and pedagogical misadventures abroad, and it has generated bitter ironies that might be instructive if they weren’t so often forgotten. For one, Yale is named for Elihu Yale, a governor of the East India Company, one of the world’s first multinational corporations, which acquired the island of “Singapura” for the British Crown in 1812.
For another, Yale missionaries in Singapore and China a century later pursued “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” a goal of the American Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, whose archives rest, fittingly, in the Yale Divinity School. Yale's would-be evangelists in China parented future Yale missionaries of a different kind: Both Henry R. Luce, co-founder of Time magazine, herald of the American Century in the 1940s, and John Hersey -- whose novel The Call depicts Christian missionaries’ blindness to host cultures’ alien cultural depths -- were born in China to missionary parents near the turn of the century.
Another century later, in 2003, Yale "missionaries" figured significantly in the design and prosecution of the Iraq War: President George W. Bush; Vice President Dick Cheney (a Yale drop-out, but still,...), Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, (who, as a Yale professor, had taught a student named I. Scooter Libby, a future top Cheney aide); "axis of evil" White House speechwriter David Frum; and the neoconservative polemicist Robert Kagan (shown here preening about American power and being flattened by French Foreign Minister Dominique De Villepin).
In 2011, other Yale professors and their National University of Singapore counterparts sat in a mansion on a hill atop New Haven, designing a curriculum for Yale-NUS College, a “new community of learning.” That community's first president, Yale comparative literature professor Pericles Lewis, declared that he was witnessing “the liberal arts experience made manifest” and prophesied “a place of revelatory stimulation” in the campus that Singapore was building on the other side of the world.
Skeptical of such prophesies and resentful at not having been consulted or even informed about Yale-NUS before its contractual commitment was a fait accompli, most Yale faculty at a meeting in New Haven passed a resolution warning that liberal education would be hobbled by Singapore’s “lack of respect for civil and political rights.” The American Association of University Professors sent a public letter to the Yale community and to 500,000 American professors expressing its “growing concern about the character and impact of the university's collaboration with the Singaporean government…. In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer."