Is NUS Ready for an Interdisciplinary Education?

From specialists to generalists, NUS’s recent announcements have been all about one thing — an interdisciplinary education. As first-year students of recently merged College of Humanities and Sciences get ready to start the new semester, and NUS’s recent announcement of the new dean of the Yale-NUS and USP merger, questions about whether the university is aptly prepared for providing interdisciplinary education are increasing. Ignite’s Sorfina writes that perhaps, more can be done.

By Sorfina

The National University of Singapore (NUS) was no stranger to outrage in 2021 when it announced the merger of Yale-NUS and its University Scholars Programme (USP). 

The recent release of the new name, National University Singapore (NUS) College, for the merged college of Yale-NUS and University Scholars Programme has attracted great criticism from students of the respective colleges who called the name “generic and uninspiring”. 

Less than 5 per cent of students from Yale-NUS and USP were satisfied with the planning process, Yale-NUS student publication The Octant reported. Much of their unhappiness towards the university’s decision is targeted at the lack of consultation between them and the school — with some students rallying together through campaign #NoMoreTopDown

However, this merger seems like a recurring theme for NUS. The Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment’s merger was announced alongside Yale-NUS and USP’s, and students in the newly formed College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) are set to start their second semester in their new school on Monday (Jan 10)

All of the past (and perhaps, upcoming) mergers point to one phrase:

“An interdisciplinary education”.

But, what does interdisciplinary even mean?

According to Professor Tan, an interdisciplinary education draws knowledge and skills from different disciplines to ensure students are prepared to face the new challenges of the post-pandemic world. 

CHS is one of the first mergers between the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Faculty of Science (FoS) that helped envision Professor Tan’s new direction for NUS. The difference between CHS and its previous constituents include its very own Common Curriculum which consists of thirteen modules, a whopping one-third of their total curriculum, that aims to highlight connections between different disciplines.

An image of the three proposed pathways of a CHS student with the Common Curriculum taking up one-third of their total curriculum.

In Singapore’ cutthroat education system, specialisation in a singular discipline remains the norm. Interdisciplinary majors or subjects often result in raised eyebrows of family members who ask the dreaded question during the festive season:

“Actually, what do you really study?”

Despite the rather subdued embrace of interdisciplinary subjects in our homeland, interdisciplinarity remains a popular buzzword in education fields and is often touted as the education of the future. Professor Tan wrote that students today graduate into world problems that are increasingly complex and multi-dimensional, and requires one to “synthesise knowledge from across different fields”. 

Professor Tan (middle) officially launching CHS in 2020.

Professor Tan’s and other experts’ call for interdisciplinary education is not unfounded. When we look at Covid-19, we can see how important it is for the transfer of skills and knowledge from different disciplines. Covid-19 is not just a medical problem but rather, it spans across fields of politics, technology, psychology, economics and more. Covid-19 is proof of the necessity of interdisciplinarity.

Despite this, CHS students have been loudly expressing their frustration at the Common Curriculum by often exclaiming “What is the point of this module?” or “I did not sign up for this” on various social media platforms. Are these merely opinions of disgruntled students or a sign of a flawed system?

CHS students speak out

Amanda, a first-year NUS student majoring in Political Science who declined to give her full name, took Scientific Inquiry and Design Thinking in 2021 which makes up two of 13 core modules required of her as a student in CHS. While she found them interesting, she shared that she does not “see any direct correlation between political science and these two modules”. 

As for Jade, she was worried that the overload of the Common Curriculum modules might affect her chances at an internship. While the 19-year-old Quantitative Finance major in her first year believed that the modules increased her “cultural sensitivity”, she lamented that the modules have little depth and do not offer her any concrete knowledge or skills.

The new CHS college bridges students from the Faculties of Arts & Social Sciences and Science.

What’s the deal with CHS’s interdisciplinary approach?

Amanda also directed me to a Reddit post on r/nus where the CHS freshmen expressed dissatisfaction at HSS1000 Understanding Social Complexity. Common critiques include CHS modules having “no substance” and this particular module being too complicated for students, especially those majoring in science, to understand.

From Amanda’s and Jade’s comments, and the discussions on the Reddit post, there was one common critique of CHS — students just do not see the link between their Common Curriculum modules and their majors. 

Instead of viewing the Common Curriculum modules as a way of integrating knowledge from different disciplines, students view them as modules that they are “forced” to take and simply “survive” through to eventually practice the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory Option. This allows students to prevent the grade they achieved from appearing on their academic transcript and lower their CAP score. 

This paradoxically clashes with Professor Tan’s aim of tearing down subject silos — instead, students turned the subjects meant to counter such silos into a silo itself. 

Professor Tan views such frustration at the modules as a result of the kiasu Singapore culture that overemphasises specialisation. However, I believe that the students’ resistance to the Common Curriculum might be less of a cultural aspect and more of NUS’s missteps in approaching an interdisciplinary education.

Professor Tan discussing CHS as a place that will “prepare students for a future of change and uncertainty” during the launch of CHS in 2020.

How can we make CHS truly interdisciplinary?

I believe that a huge mistake that CHS made is packaging interdisciplinary education into modules that can be taught rather than making it a feature of every major. It is difficult to teach the concept of interdisciplinary learning without being too general to accommodate the disparity in the knowledge of art and science students, resulting in modules that are often too diluted to be deemed useful by students. 

Covid-19 taught us that interdisciplinarity is important but not in a way CHS is propagating. We still need specialists, but we need culturally sensitive specialists that are great at solving global complex issues. These skills cannot come from one (or thirteen) general modules but from practice.

Instead, CHS should explore the option of a more project-based approach while increasing collaboration between students of different majors. Projects expose students to complex, real-world problems that push them to think from the perspective of different disciplines. In order to facilitate this, projects should include students of different disciplines to enable collaboration to simulate real-life working situations. While the Core Curriculum modules certainly involve an aspect of project work, the modules are still largely focused on the theoretical side of interdisciplinary education rather than its practical uses.

Over the years, interdisciplinary education has its meaning misinterpreted as being well-versed in different disciplines instead of a mindset that encourages students to think from different viewpoints. Science students do not necessarily need to know the theories of social sciences to be aware of the social impact of their works. Instead, forcing students who are keen on specialising in their specific subject to take on an extra load of work they find too complex or ‘useless’ deters them from having an engaging educational experience.

Professor Tan (middle) moderating a panel discussion on the future of work during the launch of CHS.

I believe that CHS has a long way to go to fully achieve its interdisciplinary status. CHS first needs to establish what it truly means to be interdisciplinary and listen to their students to better understand their needs. CHS’ young status gives the college the ability to experiment and grow with each misstep by drawing expertise from NUS’s large pool of established academics.

CHS’ first semester provides a rather bleak insight into the future of the new NUS College which, unlike CHS, is the merger of a faculty and a residential college. This adds yet another layer of complexity to NUS’s interdisciplinary education experiment and raises questions on how two radically different curricula can give rise to a single Common Curriculum.

The growing resentment of NUS students towards the mergers and the Common Curriculum is not testament to their lack of interest in interdisciplinary education but rather a lack of preparation on NUS’s part. With some modules included in Common Curriculum still under development, CHS’ students unwittingly act as guinea pigs in the much larger NUS’s experiment into interdisciplinary education. 

As students prepare to start their second semester, CHS will be under pressure to answer the critical question: Is NUS ready to be an interdisciplinary college?