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E is for English

Much has been written about the need for more and better education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in the United States.  Over the last 8 years I have enjoyed working almost exclusively on the business of technology, despite having almost no STEM education or experience.   What can an old history major provide to excellent technologists, and why should you care?

For a hint, let’s take a look at the other side of the world.  Singapore is consistently in the top five countries, and often number one, in global rankings of educational attainment, especially in math and science.  The United States is well back in the pack among economically advanced countries.  Among Singapore’s educational assets is the National University of Singapore (NUS), one of the best universities in Asia and, by many rankings, among the best in the world.

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NUS has collaborated with Yale to create Yale-NUS College in Singapore. What could an American Ivy League University bring to Singapore?  What could possibly be missing?

Listen to Singapore Education Minister Ng Eng Hen on the Yale-NUS joint venture ““It signals to students and parents that critical thinking, analysis, and deliberation—hallmarks of liberal-arts education — will be needed and valued. It will hopefully move us from a system that is now world-renowned for students who answer set questions well to one that produces students who want to start asking the right questions to produce solutions to complex problems.” (Barrons, March 7, 2015). http://online.barrons.com/articles/SB51367578116875004693704580496382329583338).

How are NUS and Yale going to accomplish this?  In one of the most old-fashioned ways imaginable: a required core curriculum that could be drawn from the Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th centuries.  There are courses in the basics of scientific thought, but also history, literature, philosophy and the arts.  (see https://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/curriculum/common-curriculum/)  Yale was founded in 1701, at the height of the Enlightenment.  It is this heritage that Singapore sees as a key to its future.

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The Enlightenment was the intellectual fuel for the American and French revolutions.  This will pose some challenges to Singapore’s strict political culture, as pointed out by Ravinder Sidhu , a senior lecturer at the School of Education at the University of Queensland (New York Times, August 27, 2012).“The main issue is whether students at the Yale-N.U.S. College will be able to engage in all of the activities associated with an education in the humanities — freedom of thought, the cultivation of the imagination, the ability to think critically about the arguments offered by those in authority, and the ability to fashion arguments and dissent in a civil manner,” she said.

Yale has been adamant that it will meet Professor Sidhu’s challenge. Clearly Singapore’s authorities like Minister Ng think the risk is not only worth taking, but essential to the future success of the country. Early reception to Yale NUS has been overwhelmingly positive, attracting 12,000 applicants for about 200 places in the class of 2018.

So what does this have to do with technology and entrepreneurship in the United States?  It means organizations and people need to work with both sides of their brains.  The skills to solve technical problems are very different from those needed to fit the technical solutions into a business and social context.  It is very hard to blend high achievement on both sides into one brain.

As you build your companies, bring in some liberal arts backgrounds for a different kind of critical thinking and problem solving.

As you continue your education, or support your children or grand children, think about Singapore.  The world’s greatest STEM education society has turned to literature, philosophy and history as essential elements in the complex problem solving in the modern world. Classics are not just for the liberal arts majors. Don’t be left behind and don’t let your children fall behind.

 

Greg Miller

Special Contributor Editor

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