Project 211

A quiet but educated take on diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 June, 2007, 12:00am


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For Richard Levin, the bespectacled and soft-spoken president of Yale University who has the look of a composed intellectual, education can be a quiet but effective form of diplomacy.

'The opportunity for young people to know one another and understand another culture is a very good investment that is going to be conducive to better understanding among nations,' said Professor Levin, who was in Hong Kong last week following a visit to China with 100 students and faculty from Yale.

He was in the mainland at the invitation of President Hu Jintao, who spoke at Yale in April last year.

'We were received by President Hu in the Great Hall of People and had visits arranged with government leaders and leading universities in the cities we visited,' Professor Levin said, adding that there were also sight-seeing trips to the Great Wall and Forbidden City.

'We're exposing some young people who may become future leaders of America to take a more in-depth look at China,' he said. 'The majority - 85 out of the 100 - have never been to China before.'

In Beijing, Professor Levin and his delegation visited Peking and Tsinghua universities where they had formal talks and informal exchanges with academics and students. Among the topics discussed were reforms in mainland education and global education.

Also, a new publication programme is starting with the China International Publishing Group to produce Chinese-language textbooks and video materials to help students around the world to learn Chinese.

The relationship between Yale and China goes back a long way. The first Chinese students went to Yale in 1850 while the Yale-China Association was set up in 1901, sending Yale graduates over to teach English as China sent its medical and nursing students to the US.

Professor Levin, an economist who assumed presidency at Yale in 1993 and who is the longest serving Ivy League president, is focused on China.

Holding an honorary degree from Peking University and an honorary professorship from Fudan, he has travelled to China five times in the past four years.

The university was chosen to sponsor a programme for the presidents and vice-presidents of China's 14 leading universities as well as an executive education course for senior Chinese government officials to study outside the country, looking at how the rule of law could be extended in China.

Last year Yale and Peking University launched an undergraduate exchange programme in which Yale and mainland students shared dormitories.

'In every room there's one Chinese and one American student,' Professor Levin said. 'This is quite novel. Foreign students are [traditionally] segregated into an international dorm.'

The head of Yale said he wanted more students to get to know China and build connections there. '[China is home to] 20 per cent of the world's population and probably a larger share of the world's talented population.

'From the point of view of educating Americans, China's rise as an economic power means it's going to have a very significant role in the world in the years to come. It will be valuable if Americans have a better understanding of China and vice versa. There are a lot of misperceptions on both sides. We have to understand one another to coexist in a peaceful and productive way.

'The world today is so interconnected and interdependent. It's really important that these large countries, which have historically been inward-looking, take an outward-looking attitude and recognise better their role in the world.'

Comparing the quality of education in China and the West, Professor Levin said while students at Peking and Tsinghua universities were 'completely comparable' to those at Oxford and Cambridge or Harvard and Yale, mainlanders still had some way to go to develop their faculties to be leading researchers globally.

Another difference lay in the style of education, he said, with universities in the US and UK focusing more on interactive education that cultivated independence.

But there wasn't a right or wrong to the philosophy of education, Professor Levin said. 'A more passive mode of education sometimes does lead to students mastering a great deal more of content.'

He said Yale provided a classical and liberal education that encouraged students to acquaint themselves with a broad range of subjects before specialising in their last two years.

And like other world-class universities, Yale focused on developing in students the ability to dissect arguments and to think critically and independently.

'One distinctive feature of Yale is that we put a lot of emphasis on the extra-curricular side of the student life,' Professor Levin said. Students lived in small communities or residential colleges, promoting their active participation in student organisations which had been a laboratory for the development of leadership skills.

Pitching top American universities against their British counterparts, the Yale president said Oxford and Cambridge retained 'unique and wonderful' features.

'The very intensive method of teaching - the tutorial method - provides superb training,' said Professor Levin, who received a Bachelor of Letters in politics and philosophy from Oxford having earned a bachelor degree in history at Stanford University.

'[The tutorial method] was extremely rigorous and certainly taught me how to write, develop and defend an argument,' he said. 'It's very labour-intensive and very expensive to replicate.'

Meanwhile, the education system in the US was beset by the problem of cutthroat competition as students scrambled to get into top schools. 'I think that's unfortunate. There's too much anxiety suffered by parents and high school students about getting into college,' Professor Levin said.

But all students had a fair chance to get in, given the many access points. 'There are elite private institutions like Yale, some very good state universities, many colleges and universities at different levels of quality and a broad community college system.'

While the lowest income strata in the US was not proportionally represented at Yale, about half of the students were on some form of financial aid. He added that the cost of higher education was less of a problem at schools such as Yale, Princeton and Harvard that gave generous financial aid than at schools that were less well-endowed.

Notwithstanding the prominence of Yale, Professor Levin is determined not to be lured into complacency.

In 2001 and 2003 Yale undertook a comprehensive review of its undergraduate curriculum, which led to a number of changes, including the commitment to send students overseas, putting more prominence on international education and some other modest changes in the structure of the first two years of the curriculum.

'We got some real benefit out of that review even though we could have just sat there and thought we were fine,' Professor Levin said.