Saturday, May 3, 2014

Meditations on First Ideology

A bit over a year ago, working for Admissions meant that lots of people asked me why I chose to go to Yale-NUS. When people ask questions enough times, eventually one starts seriously trying to answer it, or at least think of an answer that sounds good enough for oneself. Some answers don’t think themselves into thought, but instead try to give articulated form to emotions or notions that just well up.

“I chose Yale-NUS because it gives me a sense of purpose and being part of this makes me feel like part of something bigger, in a way that no other college could.”

We might conceive of the educational horizon that Yale-NUS strives to push as a kind of brave new world, and in many concrete ways it is; in terms of curriculum, pedagogical model, etc. We are not daunted by the full and realistic expectation that what happens here will be dwarfed by future achievements, nor should we be. However large the building eventually becomes, the satisfaction stems from laying a reasonably significant brick. But ideology goes deeper than corporate purpose, into culture.

There is a similarity between certain pieces of literature (like the Bible and the Ramayana) and the Yale-NUS mission statement on the wall outside the lobby and dining hall: though not everyone reads it, let alone is conscious of it every waking moment, the ideas represented by words like ‘In Asia,’ ‘For the World’ come to pervade the culture they are a part of. Language and ideology are powerful social institutions, shaping our minds in subtle but significant ways. The language and ideology of Yale-NUS are no less compelling. One thing about Yale-NUS that we are proud of is a ‘sense of community’ that one cannot replicate on the campus of a large university because it is structurally impossible – and perhaps psychologically impossible to know 20,000 people. This ‘sense of community’ goes by another name in CSI: communitas.

Part of the Yale-NUS community extends into cyberspace, Facebook being one of the most significant reservoirs. Of all the possible groups we could find under the Yale-NUS banner, consider the Confessions page. It is a really interesting phenomenon which has a number of times emerged from the Internet, manifested and exerted power in the real world, commandeering the agenda of at least two town-hall meetings. When the whole debate about racism and constitutional politics got started, I got the sense that something had or was exerting influence over people’s emotions, including my own. Was it the Confessions page? No, the thing-that-was-exerting-influence was mediated through a webpage, but was not the webpage itself. After all, it doesn’t make sense to say that the ultimate cause for the sense of disturbance that many felt was a bunch of electronic signals in some data center.

Another observation was that the sense of disturbance people felt in the aftermath of that event (and one which I think subtly reverberates today) was not merely a sense of being offended at a racist remark. After all, we see racial discrimination a lot on the web, yet none of it produces the same psychological effect as the Confessions episode had on many members of the community. Contained within that disturbance was a sense of uncertainty or unhingement. As though something previously thought secure had come loose.

Some people felt a sense of disappointment, a handful articulated it (at least a few who I had the chance to listen to). What is disappointment but the sinking of an expectation? There is/was a certain expectation of the communitas that was threatened. Perhaps it was the expectation that everyone was at heart a nice person? What might we mean by nice people? People who disapprove of saying nasty things? People who see and choose to ignore or gloss over deep physical, religious, cultural, philosophical differences? People who don’t see those differences at all? People who compliment their Yale-NUS comrade’s every achievement out of care for their emotional well-being? Where do these expectations come from? Who told us that this is what ‘nice people’ look like?

The intangible collection of ideas and notions that form the Yale-NUS ideology are brought here by every single individual, each of whom comes from a different background, some more similar and others different depending on whose subjective perspective we assume. In the process of identification as a Yale-NUS student, we begin to identify with our institution. Everyone does it in different ways, but everyone does it to some extent. Somewhere, expectations are formed, conditioned not only by rhetoric we feed each other, but also by our backgrounds, emotions and our ideas of what a liberal arts college is or should be. The more we dig up and plumb the depths of ourselves and our institution (and reading Confessions is an interesting way of doing it), the more we might realize that there are similarities and differences which run far deeper than we expect. Let us also remember that any abstract Yale-NUS ideology is also a historical product of an American liberal arts ideology (whatever that is), rather than something we created ex nihilo here in Singapore. A fair number of optimistic, incoming freshmen expecting an ‘American-style’ education should attest to that. Many of us were not so different not so long ago.

Every bunch of people with a sense of communitas has a totem. This totem is not a physical object, online platform or person, but a collection of ideas and notions that flow together to form something we might call an ideology. To consider this thought piece as simply an attack on the totem we have right now would be a misunderstanding. Having been a part of this social institution for the better part of a year now, I think it is only appropriate that we start examining the nature of the totem we really have. Such a meditation not only demands that we dissect any ideology we hold, but also requires us to reach inside and reflect deeper than we might have thought necessary. And who knows until where those implications and conclusions might reverberate.

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