Education in the Anthropocene —Yale-NUS College as a case study of higher education


 Presenter (s) Jason Chun Yat YEUNG
Title Education in the Anthropocene —Yale-NUS College as a case study of higher education

This paper is an interdisciplinary environmental humanities essay on (higher) education in the era of Anthropocene. It argues that education in the Anthropocene requires a set of knowledge, skills, and values. It also argues that Yale-NUS College, a newly-established liberal arts college in Singapore, teaches correct lessons in unsustainable ways and indirectly teaches wrong lessons.

Starting with a personal anecdote as a student, the first part of the essay establishes the linkage between the concept of Anthropocene and education. As almost all students (myself included) learn about climate change at schools in the 21st century, I am prompted to ask: what should and can education do in the Anthropocene? What should schools teach students and how are they doing it? Education in the Anthropocene takes many forms: it can be education for sustainability (EfS), education for sustainable development (ESD), environmental education (EE), amongst other similar things. Different educators around the world have recently called for new educational priorities in the Anthropocene. For example, Assadourian argues for eco-literacy, systems thinking and critical thinking as well as moral and character education (Assadourian, 2017), while Throop suggests a virtue shift with new knowledge and skills for climate change (Throop, 2016). Likewise, Wi et al. propose three elements: knowledge, skills, and values, for students to understand environmental issues and to empower them to take pro-environmental actions (Wi & Chang, 2018) Thus, a whole set of new knowledge, skills, and values have to be the new focus of education as students need them to function and survive in the Anthropocene. I interpret Knowledge as eco-literacy — knowing the facts and scientific truth around the environment and the human activities that are altering it. Next, I interpret skills to be the ability to recognize environmental problems and the capability to improve the status quo; they should enable the revisions that lead to a more sustainable future. These skills include interdisciplinary learning, systems thinking, critical and creative thinking, leadership, and collaboration. Lastly, I refer values as virtues, qualities, and character traits that students have to possess so they have the willingness and disposition to use the capability (knowledge and skills) to create change in themselves and in the world.

After establishing the importance of an entire set of knowledge, skills, and values that education should teach in the Anthropocene, the second part of the essay employs discourse analysis to investigate what and how schools in Singapore are teaching. I argue that Singaporean schools teach knowledge, but not so much on necessary and important skills and values for the Anthropocene. There is also a gap in scholarship on environment-related education within the Singaporean higher education landscape, but higher education is extremely important for students as it is the final phase before they join the workforce and participate in the economy that contributes to environmental problems (Assadourian, 2017). Some thinkers even go further and argue that universities have a moral obligation and imperative to teach sustainability since it is their job to educate and nurture future decision-makers (Mulkey, 2015, Orr, 1992, Horst, N., 2013). Among different types of universities, residential liberal arts colleges are believed to strengthen virtue education best (Throop, 2016) and sustainability is considered the ultimate liberal art (Rhodes, 2006). Hence, the question now is: what is liberal arts and what allows it to strengthen virtue cultivation so easily? Several studies have suggested that liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility (David Kearns, Xerox, 2002, AACU 2019); most American liberal arts colleges educate on ‘responsible citizenship’ and pride themselves on empowering their students to be future ‘change-makers’ (Nussbaum, 2004). At the same time, many liberal arts colleges claim that liberal arts education trains the necessary skills and values for the Anthropocene, such as ‘innovative and critical thinking’, ‘refined judgment and creative synthesis’ and ‘service to society’(Amherst College, 2019, Wellesley College, 2019).

As liberal arts education is widely believed to hone critical, creative, and interdisciplinary thinking skills in students, I choose Yale-NUS College, the first and the only liberal arts college in Singapore and Southeast Asia, as a case study. I analyze the institutional discourse on approaches to skills and virtues cultivation so as to explore the priorities and ideals of Yale-NUS College. I gather data from prospectuses, bulletins, the curriculum report, the school website, and speeches made by senior administrators of the school, all of which will reflect the educational philosophies and intended practices of the school in an environmental lens. Even though all institutions have similar lofty mission statements and high-sounding rhetoric in their public promotional publications, the college’s emphasis on the skills and values needed for the Anthropocene is clear and obvious, perhaps more so than other universities in the country and the region. As such, it is valuable to use Yale-NUS College as a case study to investigate the concrete ways in which the school attempts to hone skills and cultivate character traits and virtues in its students. My analysis has inherent limitations since institutional discourse does not reflect the actual implementation and execution of fancy-sounding aims and goals. Nevertheless, my analysis does signal the institutional priorities from the college’s perspective, elucidate the mission and vision that the school administration has, and highlight the endeavor, beliefs, and intentions demonstrated in school policies, without which skills and values for the Anthropocene will not be delivered.

Through analyzing the school’s curricular and co-curricular programs, residential education, and campus design. I conclude that Yale-NUS College teaches correct lessons in unsustainable ways and at the same time indirectly teaches wrong lessons. Other educational institutions can consider adopting similar priorities and beware of the failures seen in the school. Research should be done on students’ actual experience on how they receive such education and investigate whether and how students narrate difference experience than those promoted by the school. It is only through understanding the discrepancies and misalignments between institutional discourse and students’ experience will us understand truly how knowledge, skills, and values should and can be effectively transferred to students in the Anthropocene.

Jason is an undergraduate student at Yale-NUS College. As a prospective Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major, he is passionate about the philosophy and politics of (higher) education. His interdisciplinary interests include the global rise of liberal (arts) education, satellite campuses, and youth citizenship.

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