Monday, June 18, 2012

Language says what the heart means

I love stories of cultural preservation. They prove that we human beings still recognize our connection to the past and care enough about our heritage to take a stand to keep it alive. Various Native American tribes, including several in California, have recently begun using casino revenues to fund projects to preserve native languages.

Though I am usually inspired by such stories, feeling a righteous and impassioned sense of duty, this time, while reading about these endeavors, I just felt my throat catch. I wonder if it is too little, too late, a noble exercise in futility. It's not the fault of these tribes -- they are the victims here, retreating and giving ground against centuries-long cultural assaults that have fragmented their cultures and worn away their traditions, sometimes with violence, and other times through the abrasion of misguided social policy and the onslaught of economic change. Yet even as I wish them the best, I am concerned whether such efforts will be enough. A language has to be used in everyday life to be "living." The tribes have such small pockets of continuing speakers; will children newly educated in these tongues truly use them?

Chinese-speakers have a whole country (three of them, actually -- China, Taiwan, Singapore -- plus the territory of Hong Kong) to back them up. We have a homeland and linguistic proving ground (plus the incentive of communicating with 1 billion consumers and listening to catchy Mandarin pop music), yet I'm pretty sure most of us ABCs couldn't keep the Chinese language "alive" on our own. Aside from being a tool to communicate with our elders, a true vernacular must be the language for expressing ourselves -- the language of the heart. Sadly, I don't think Chinese represents that for most of us.

Good luck to these tribes. I feel for them, and I support their efforts, but the success of this effort is an open question. Yes, the example of Catalan gives me hope for a happy tale that has not yet drawn to an end. However, the story of so many other extinct languages -- mirrored in some ways by our own experiences with Mandarin and Cantonese in America -- as well as the inexorable, assimilative power of English (beloved tongue of mine), would seem to point elsewhere.

"With Casino Revenues, Tribes Push to Preserve Languages, and Cultures" (The New York Times)

"Chukchansi tribe gives Fresno State $1 million to preserve language" (Fresno Bee)

Heroes, these scholars of language: the Fresno State Linguistics Department. "Language is an essential part of our life. Nothing characterizes humanity more than the ability to use language."

Friday, June 08, 2012

Liberal (education) Singapore

Yale University announced a while back that it is creating a liberal arts college in Singapore that will bear the Yale name. It seemed like a novel thing, providing a spark for humanities and education in Asia more broadly, where many national education systems emphasize test-taking and rote memorization. I was generally supportive, as I am part of a team at Stanford working on liberal education issues in Asia.

However, there has been serious dissent in recent months among Yale faculty members, who are concerned about partnering with a Singaporean government that restricts freedom of speech and press, stymies full political participation, and has some pretty draconian social laws that might not be in accord with American sensibilities.

I am weighing in now because we are holding our own liberal education program here at Stanford (Humanities Education and Leadership or HEAL) with many students from China attending, and I am struck, once again, by the moment.

Singapore Partnership Creates Dissension at Yale

Is Yale a Reliable Partner for the National University of Singapore?

So I might be wading into a thicket ... but I want to say to Yale:

Dear Yale,

Even Stanford, which the New Yorker claims is Stanford Inc. (and proud of it!), still respects and cares for its mission of liberal education. While the idea of a liberal arts college in Singapore is exciting -- East Asia sorely needs this kind of new approach to education -- the qualms of students, alumni and faculty ought to be heard, and the issues thoroughly aired and debated.

For example, what protections have been built in for the students and faculty you are welcoming under the banner of Yale in Singapore? In a country where censorship, paternalism, and intimidation by the state on political grounds still persists, will free speech be upheld? Can people sing, say, study, scream, demand, decry, support, condemn, protest and celebrate the same things they would at Yale in New Haven? What protections for freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom to love have you asked for and been guaranteed in this new venture? Yes, I understand there's a prospectus that says some of the right words in this regard, but what is its scope and the strength of its promises?

It's one thing to be collaborative and to establish a new institutional culture based on mutuality. (One must still ask if that newly-formed culture remains true to the home school. That was one concern I had about Stanford in New York, and why many students were not unhappy when the plan was shelved). But when a foreign state offers to pay for everything to "import" Yale? In this case, you are in a position of power; you are not the supplicant. Use your leverage for good!

Yale is not just a brand name, and it is not a vocational school. It is an institution of higher learning. Aside from competence in the subjects, you have a greater mission to teach ethics, inculcate values, and contribute to the broadening of minds. Building a culture of open inquiry, respect for truth, and caring for others -- that is your mission. Please don't forget it.


I actually love Singapore and considered moving there after graduation. I'm still planning to go some day. However, I want this issue to be discussed and considered, not just rammed through over the objections of thinking, caring people -- our brothers, sisters and teachers at Yale, and perhaps also the scholars and watchers of East Asia and the American academic community at large.

The ironic thing is that I don't necessarily disagree with -- and frankly, am fascinated by -- many of the Singaporean government's policies. As a democrat, I take issue with muzzling of the press and the difficulties imposed on the democratic opposition. But many programs in housing and community development are innovative, effective and even sagacious, and could provide models we can learn from and apply in other contexts.

I was excited about the idea of Yale-NUS at first, but now I also want Yale faculty and students who have concerns to be heard.

I'm not sure if the university administration really has closed the case. But please read this editorial from our brethren at Yale. The intelligence and maturity with which they write makes me so proud.

Remaining Yale in Singapore