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Foreign Exchange

September 17, 2013

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Can the liberal arts thrive in countries with more restrictive civil liberties than we have in the US? Can a university deliver a liberal arts education, with its distinctive values of free inquiry and critical thinking, in such countries without sacrificing its integrity?

Those were the questions posed by Jim Sleeper, a lecturer at Yale, in a recent piece in the NY Times.

At NYU, we believe the clear answer is yes. We base it on several factors: the fact we and our partners committed to academic freedom as an explicit pre-condition to moving ahead with the development of our campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai; our choice of prominent US academics to run these campuses and ensure that free inquiry would be preserved; the actual, on-the-ground experience of our faculty; and our belief that a liberal arts education is not a hothouse flower, fragile and vulnerable, but a hardier species that can thrive in different climates and have an important impact on students even when pursued in societies unlike those in the west.

Al Bloom, the Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi and the former president of Swarthmore College, and Jeffrey Lehman, the Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai and the former president of Cornell University, probably said it best in their letter to the Times in response to the Sleeper's piece:

To the Editor:

We disagree with Jim Sleeper in both theory and reality. The fundamental mission of a liberal arts education is to lead students to build the capacity and readiness to critically analyze issues, assumptions and values. Through this educational approach students develop their own sense of what is significant for themselves, their societies and the world to achieve. Contrary to Mr. Sleeper’s claims, what we are proving in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai is how powerful a liberal arts education is in developing these habits of mind across differing political, social and cultural environments. America’s own promise of freedom has become more real for all citizens over the past 50 years, thanks in good part to a liberal arts education.

And we are confident that a liberal arts education has the potential to produce citizenship and leadership for a more inclusive, cooperative and peaceful planet.

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.

Faculty members from NYU Abu Dhabi also weighed in. Here's a letter that Professor Cyrus Patel submitted to the Times and shared with us:

To the Editor:

Re: "Liberal Education in Authoritarian Places" (opinion, 31 August 2013)

Mr. Sleeper writes, “At its best, a liberal education imbues future citizen-leaders with the values and skills that are necessary to question, not merely serve, concentrations of power and profit.” It is precisely those values and skills that we inculcate in our students at NYU Abu Dhabi, without any restrictions. Rachel Aviv notes in her profile of NYU’s president, John Sexton, in this week’s New Yorker that “none of the professors or students I talked to said that they felt restrictions on what they could study.” One of our students was awarded a Truman Scholarship on the basis of a policy proposal that develops a framework for providing institutional support for communities of international migrant workers. NYU 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.

And here's one from Matthew Silverstein, an assistant professor of philosophy:

To the Editor:

Jim Sleeper argues that educators are “defining down their expectations of what a liberal education means” when they open campuses in authoritarian nations (Liberal Education in Authoritarian Places, September 1). This does not align with my experience at NYU Abu Dhabi. Having studied and taught philosophy at Amherst College, I am familiar with what a traditional liberal arts education looks like from both sides of the seminar table, and I have no doubt that NYUAD students are receiving an outstanding and genuinely liberal education. There are no viewpoints, theories, ideas, arguments, or authors excluded from our classrooms.

If anything, NYUAD students are receiving an even broader education than is typically found in the US. Despite the diversity found at many top liberal arts colleges, there remains a strong American center of gravity. At NYUAD there is no center of gravity – no default position or orientation – in either our student body or our curriculum. It’s hard to imagine a better environment in which to teach students to question their most basic assumptions and commitments.

An NYU faculty member who was involved in curriculum development for NYU Abu Dhabi told me a story that has stuck with me because of the way it distilled the essence of a liberal arts education. He grew up and went to school in the Near East, transferring to an American school for high school. In response to a point made by a classmate during a discussion, the teacher turned to him and asked, “what do you think about that?” It was the first time a teacher of any sort had posed such a question to him. It was why, decades later, he was optimistic about the possibilities of NYU Abu Dhabi.

Do we really believe that kind of interaction should only be confined to only certain parts of the globe?

--John Beckman

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