Outside Criticism Sparks Dialogue on Liberal Education

In his recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, journalist Jim Sleeper opened his argument with a biting metaphor, describing NYU Shanghai’s ...

Sep 21, 2013

In his recent op-ed piece for The New York Times, journalist Jim Sleeper opened his argument with a biting metaphor, describing NYU Shanghai’s unfinished campus as a symbol for the incomplete education that the university is offering its students.
The university inaugurated its first class only a month ago, but Sleeper argued that NYUSH has already failed — not because of any blunder in administration or curricula, but rather due to its very existence.
According to Sleeper, a liberal education cannot survive in countries with an authoritarian government. The goals of such an institution, he said, are doomed to perish among the thorny gnarls of the political, social and legal restrictions of such a state.
“[You’ll] see globe-trotting university presidents and trustees who are defining down their expectations of what a liberal education means, much as corporations do when they look the other way at shoddy labor and environmental practices abroad,” wrote Sleeper, referencing NYU Abu Dhabi, John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in China and Yale-NUS in Singapore with increasing skepticism.
The piece was frankly titled with the words “Liberal Education in Authoritarian Places” suspended over a photo of NYUAD’s current campus, a building that many students have come to see as the purple-and-silver heart of the city’s downtown area. The op-ed is just one out of the many articles that have criticized NYU’s presence abroad.
Yet NYU Public Affairs deemed this particular article pressing enough to warrant a response, which it published on its blog on Sept. 17. Through personalized letters to the editor, Vice Chancellor Al Bloom, professor Cyrus Patel and professor Matthew Silverstein defended NYUAD and the concept of a liberal arts education outside the West.
“It is puzzling to us that people who claim to believe in the effectiveness of a liberal arts education should have so little faith in its adaptability and strength,” wrote Bloom.
Senior Alexander Wang read The New York Times article and the Public Affairs post, both of which led him to think about the varying definitions of a liberal arts education abroad. There are certainly differences in opinion — what Bloom calls a quest for “a more inclusive, cooperative and peaceful planet,” Sleeper sees as a “mad scramble to expand.”
However, Wang believes that assuming the normative definition of a liberal arts education — a definition that is coded with Western and U.S. standards — is limiting.
“There are certain parts of the world where I think — and China is maybe a better example than Abu Dhabi — you can’t have that Western model [of liberal education],” said Wang. “My sense from Al Bloom’s response is that if you believe in the mission of a liberal arts education … [as] something that does have a global reach, then you need to accept that it’s a concept that is under constant revision.”
In his article, Sleeper also fixated on the political restrictions of the countries he listed, suggesting that the quality of a university is compromised by such regulation.
Patel was quick to respond to such allegations, while also addressing Sleeper’s sly allusion to possible human rights violations in the construction of the Saadiyat campus.
“Rachel Aviv notes in her profile of NYU’s president, John Sexton, in [the Sept. 9 issue of The] New Yorker that ‘none of the professors or students I talked to said that they felt restrictions on what they could study,’” Patel wrote. “Abu Dhabi insists that good working conditions and benefits are the rule on the construction site of its future campus, a fact recognized by the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch in Ms. Aviv’s article.”
Wang also maintains that freedom in the realms of academia and research exists in the UAE.
“I feel that a lot of my research interests and activist interests have revolved around topics that are maybe sensitive and I’ve never felt any pressure from [administration], faculty, anybody to quash those interests,” said Wang.
Wang added, however, that there are differences in social, legal and cultural standards to consider when researching in the UAE. These unique circumstances may require changing one’s academic methods, but don’t necessarily compromise the validity of the research.
“There is some necessity of keeping in mind the cultural, and also legal, norms of operating in this research environment,” said Wang. “At the same time, I don’t think that necessarily limits the kind of inquiry that you can make, but instead shows that you can’t use an American style of social research all over the world.”
Sophomore Geo Kamus expressed a similar sentiment in regard to social outreach and activism.
“We have several outreach organizations within NYUAD that attempt to address [Human Rights] situations in a culturally sensitive manner,” said Kamus. “I don’t think breaking the laws and addressing these issues without first respecting the [political] framework that we’re given is effective. As we’re representing an American institution, for us to just demand and impose what we think is right is unproductive.”
In his response on the post, Silverstein not only justified NYU’s expansion but also highlighted the benefits of shifting the liberal arts across cultures.
“If anything, NYUAD students are receiving an even broader education than is typically found in the U.S.,” wrote Silverstein. “Despite the diversity found at many top liberal arts colleges, there remains a strong American center of gravity.”
Sophomore Lingliang Zhang agreed with this sentiment, mentioning open-minded classroom settings as great catalysts for interesting, constructive dialogue.
“[At NYUAD] there’s more diversity in opinions,” said Zhang. “I also feel that we can better understand the ideals of what it means to have free speech or academic freedom in a context where those things aren’t taken as a given.”
Despite this, Zhang has also been in classes where professors have been less inclined to open the classroom to discussion. He referred to teachers from New York in particular, who are more accustomed to teaching massive, lecture-style courses.
Wang also mentioned the university’s diversity of opinions, recalling one class that launched into in-depth discussion about the separation between church and state.
“During that class discussion, we had so many people who came from different religious but also secular traditions where this separation between church and state is not necessarily a given,” said Wang. “And I think having students who come from those actual traditions, as opposed to studying them in abstract, really changes the nature of the discussion.”
A native Philadelphian passionate about social and political matters, Wang went from working on the Obama campaign and organizing protests in his small town of 3,000 people to living in Abu Dhabi, where he met students hailing from traditions vastly different from his own.
“Coming here was a huge shift,” said Wang. “[It] has made me think that this idea of freedom is something that’s so culturally coded. It’s very difficult for me to think that other students who come from non-American contexts, where they haven’t had the experiences I’ve had of protest or rallies, are somehow less free.”
Zoe Hu is features editor. Email her at 
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