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Building a Better Yalie
What does a Yale undergraduate need to know? After two years of rumination, and only a little controversy, the faculty has revised its consensus on the college curriculum.

In the early 1700s, undergraduates at Yale all studied the same things: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in their first year, followed by logic, metaphysics, math, physics, and theology. In their three-year course of study, the students of what was then known as the Collegiate School absorbed a good portion of the knowledge that elite Western culture had to offer. And they did it all—lectures, discussions, and exams—in Latin.

Three hundred years later, Yale’s beginnings as a Calvinist seminary are all but invisible in the curriculum. Undergraduates choose from among two thousand courses, all of them presumably things worth knowing. Amid such an overwhelming array of choices, how does a university offer a coherent liberal education to undergraduates? And more fundamentally, what is the purpose of such an education in the first place? Yale and other elite colleges have traditionally sought to distinguish themselves from the majority of institutions by eschewing career training in favor of mind expansion. Is that still a reasonable goal in 2003, or is it too lofty? Should the university have an eye on what the job market will demand of its graduates?

One can answer such questions with great confidence in the abstract, but both God and the devil are in the details, as Yale faculty and administrators have found over the years when trying to set down requirements for the distribution of undergraduate studies. The latest changes to those requirements, which were voted in by the faculty in November, are an attempt to balance competing interests and values.

The three proposals that were approved were a restructuring of the distributional requirements, the creation of faculty councils to oversee those requirements, and a plan that would reduce the foreign-language requirement for a few students (while increasing it for others). These moves had been recommended in the spring by the Committee on Yale College Education (CYCE), a group appointed by President Richard Levin in 2001 to review the undergraduate curriculum. All three proposals passed by a wide margin, with only the foreign-language question generating much debate. Freshmen entering in the fall of 2005 will be the first students subject to the new requirements.

Although the Yale Daily News has referred to the new measures as “sweeping changes” (a measure of Yale’s conservatism, perhaps) they will not likely change the average student’s course of study by more than two or three course credits. The current four-group system requires students to take three courses each in departments classified as languages and literature, humanities, social sciences, and “hard” sciences. The new rules require students to take two courses each in humanities and arts, social sciences, and natural sciences. In addition, students must take two courses that emphasize writing skills and two courses that stress “quantitative reasoning.”

For the most part, these changes are less about a shift in priorities for undergraduate education than about better fulfilling the university’s existing priorities. The CYCE’s report (nicknamed the Brodhead Report for the committee’s chair, outgoing Yale College dean Richard Brodhead '68, '72 PhD) criticized the existing set of distributional requirements as “spectacularly vague about the skills it expects students to build strength in.” The quantitative reasoning and writing requirements emphasize skills rather than simple exposure to a discipline, making it clearer that a Yale graduate is expected to know how to write and how to make sense out of numbers.

The writing requirement sets in concrete a long-standing recommendation that students take one of the freshman English courses that emphasize both reading and writing (although students will be able to fulfill the new requirement with courses other than these). The quantitative reasoning requirement is a more novel idea that came out of the CYCE’s subcommittee on science education for nonscientists. “We found that it is very difficult to teach science to nonmajors because there is not enough quantitative literacy among them,” says astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who chaired the subcommittee. “So the professors end up teaching quantitative reasoning as part of these courses just to catch them up, but not in a way that is thought through, because it’s not the stated intention of the course.”

The explanations for the quantitative reasoning requirement tend to emphasize its importance in the world of work. “The number of careers that are open to those who can reason in a quantitative way—and closed to those who can’t—is large,” says Brodhead. “This is our guess about the future—that a student would be better prepared with these skills.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if people understood order of magnitude or probability better?” asks Ramamurti Shankar, chair of the physics department and of the new faculty council on quantitative reasoning. “An understanding of statistics is very important to functioning in our society.”

Kagan calls the language reforms “absurd in light of the world situation.”

But classics professor and former Yale College dean Donald Kagan, who sees the new changes in general as “just a lot of smoke and mirrors,” thinks the quantitative reasoning requirement is “one more step toward the professionalization of the curriculum.” Instead of small, marketplace-oriented adjustments to a curriculum of wide-open choices, he says, “there should be a number of courses that everybody has to take. One of the richest ways that people at this level are educated is in conversation and argument. You can see this flourishing in Directed Studies. But to have that everybody has to be studying the same thing at the same time. If we don’t have any common studies, it’s a real blow to the finest teaching resources we have—the students themselves teaching each other.”

Kagan’s vision is appealing—students beneath the elms discussing Plato after frisbee practice—but in 21st-century Yale, it’s a minority view. Even in the most rarefied bastions of liberal education today, students, and their parents, want some assurance that their education will prepare them for a career. Such demands are supported by skill-based requirements—quantitative reasoning, foreign languages, writing—but not by the common curriculum of old. “There are too many things worth knowing now for us to regulate,” Brodhead told an alumni assembly last fall. “Besides, when you require something, you reduce it to the level of a requirement. I would never want to have a single class as a requirement.”

The most controversial of the recently approved proposals is an adjustment to the foreign-language requirement. At present, all students must take two years of a foreign language unless they place out. The new requirement says that all students, regardless of proficiency, must take at least one term of foreign language, and most students must still complete a fourth-semester course or place out. But those who can’t place out of the first-semester course (about one-sixth of undergraduates) need take only three terms of foreign language, rather than four.

On its face, even this small reduction of the requirement, applying to just a few students, seems to contradict the university’s new emphasis on internationalization. Foreign-language faculty have been especially critical of the move, and some others agree. “Language study is the most potent weapon for penetrating a culture other than one’s own,” says Kagan. “Anything you do to minimize that is at a very high cost to liberal education. It’s an anti-intellectual step—not to mention an absurd one in light of the world situation.”

Brodhead concedes that the point is arguable. “I did not myself originally embrace this recommendation,” he says. “But we looked at the schedules of students, especially those in the sciences, and found that asking them to commit one-sixth of their education to a foreign language was disproportionate.” Adds Bailyn, “There have been a lot of instances where people take foreign-language courses, which account for six Group I courses, and never take an English course. The idea that the system brings people to Yale and then discourages them from taking English courses is just nuts.”

On the other hand, the fact that proficient students can no longer test out of foreign language will have its own ramifications. Nina Garrett, director of the Center for Language Study, predicts that there will be more “bridge courses”—classes in journalism, law, medicine, or politics that are conducted entirely in a foreign language—so that students can merge language study with their other interests.

The faculty have 18 months to adjust their curricular offerings before the deadline: the arrival of the Class of 2009. Faculty councils are at work creating new courses that fulfill each requirement, as well as reviewing existing courses to decide which will count toward each requirement. (This is an improvement on the previous system, which assigned a distribution group number based on the department in which a course was taught—not its content.)

If the Brodhead Report’s other recommendations are fulfilled, these faculty councils will become the nuclei for three new teaching centers, modeled after the interdepartmental Center for Language Study, that are devoted to quantitative reasoning, writing, and science teaching. But creating these centers will take money. So will another of the report’s most innovative proposals: a special pool of new faculty slots, overseen by the Yale College dean’s office, that would allot faculty resources to individual departments (though not permanently) in order to augment undergraduate teaching. The university plans to launch a capital campaign in 2005, partly to fund these academic enhancements.

What many of these recommendations—the faculty councils, the teaching centers, the faculty pool—have in common is that they are extra-departmental. A departmental structure, specialized by nature, tends to serve research and graduate education more aptly than undergraduate education. Brodhead’s committee was not given the charge to create a counterbalance to the influence of departments; yet in seeking to more deliberately craft an undergraduate curriculum, that is exactly what it has ended up doing. It seems that, despite Kagan’s concerns about “professionalization,” the university hopes to strike a blow for old-fashioned well-roundedness. “The report is not a revolution,” says Brodhead, “but the effect will not be modest. It could make a difference.”  the end





Rhetoric, Euclid, and Fluxions: The Changing Curriculum

The President and each of the Tutors, according to the best of their Discretion, shall teach and instruct his own Class in the three learned Languages, and the liberal Arts and Sciences. In the first Year the Students are principally to learn the Languages and Arithmetic; and through the two next following Years they are required to pursue the Study of the Languages in some measure. The second Year they recite Logic, Rhetoric, Geometry and Geography; the third the other Branches of the Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Astronomy; in the fourth Metaphysics, Ethics, History and civil Policy. The respective classes shall recite the usual Books, and in the accustomed Manner, or such other Books and in such Manner as the President, with the Advice of the Tutors, shall appoint; but every Saturday shall be devoted chiefly to the Study of Divinity.




The whole course of instruction occupies four years. In each year there are three terms or sessions. The three younger classes are divided each into three parts; the Senior class into two parts. Each of the four classes attends three recitations or lectures in a day; except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when they have only two. The following scheme gives a general view of the studies pursued in each term

Freshman class
I. Lincoln’s Livy, begun. Roman Antiquities. Day’s Algebra. Homer’s Odyssey, begun.

II. Livy, continued. Homer’s Odyssey, continued through six books. Algebra, reviewed; Playfair’s Euclid, four books.

III. Horace, begun. Herodotus, begun. Euclid, finished.
Parts of the Greek testament are read during the year …

Senior class
I. Astronomy, finished. Modern History. Reid’s Essays (Walker’s edition.) Cousin’s Psychology. Oration of Demosthenes on the Crown. Blair’s Rhetoric.

II. Moral Philosophy. Political Philosophy and the Law of Nations. Paley’s Natural Theology. Select Latin or Greek; Modern Languages; Practical Astronomy; or Fluxions; at the option of the student.

III. Political Economy, Wayland's. Evidences of Christianity.




Students are required to take before graduation one two-term course or two term courses in the same subject in each of the six groups listed below.

I. Classical Languages and Civilization: Latin or Greek at level of 30 or above, or Classical Civilization.

II. Modern Language: A course listed 22 or above in French, German, Italian, Russian, or Spanish.

III. Natural Science: Astronomy, Biology, Botany, Chemistry, Geology, Physics, Zoology, or one of the following: Science I, II, III.

IV. Social Science: Anthropology, Economics, History, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Sociology.

V. The Arts and Letters: The Fine Arts, Music, Literature—ancient or modern.

VI. Systematic Thinking: Mathematics, Philosophy, or an advanced natural science. A course in the history of language.


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