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Making a Place for Learning
The AYA’s fall assembly focused on both the tangible and the intangible elements that fuel Yale’s educational process.

Located in the heart of a distressed city and embarked on massive renovations of its own, Yale has become increasingly concerned of late with its surroundings as a place for teaching and scholarship. But the successful pursuit of those activities involves more than a comfortable physical setting. And for two days last fall all of the ingredients came under scrutiny as part of the semiannual assembly of the Association of Yale Alumni. Entitled “Yale as an Environment for Learning,” the gathering took place October 14–16 and brought some 250 AYA delegates and guests back to New Haven for a series of lectures and panel discussions on subjects that ranged from who does the teaching to the relationships Yale students develop with the world beyond the campus.

Carlos R. Moreno ’70, who organized the assembly, began the proceedings by declaring that “the foremost question for this assembly is, will Yale prepare students for life in the 21st century?” But preparing students for the next century, according to Moreno, is not just an academic matter, and requires attention to at least four major aspects of the educational environment: the curriculum, interactions with the community, the quality of life, and the scholarly collections.

Few people on the faculty have such a complete view of today’s Yale and its relationship to personal development as does one of its newest leaders, Dean of the College Richard Brodhead '68, who was the assembly’s keynote speaker. A member of the faculty since he received his doctorate in English in 1972, Brodhead studies the impact of social and cultural changes on 19th- and 20th-century American literature. In his new post, he must now oversee an ongoing change in the social and cultural makeup of Yale. No area has presented as complex a set of issues for the contemporary university or aroused such public controversy as what Brodhead termed, in the title of his lecture, “The Challenge of Multiculturalism.”

Brodhead described the current debate as one in which a previous era’s “internally coherent cultural education” is held up for either attack or defense by the battling sides. According to Brodhead, those who advocate changes in the curriculum have “a suspicion that different experiences are hidden behind that previous unity, that we need to attend to another possible side of the story.” On the other side are those who see chaos as an inevitable outcome of such change. In their view, Brodhead said, “Multiculturalism multiplies, and it disestablishes.”

The current debate at Yale, Brodhead continued, is part of a much wider transformation taking place throughout the country. “Multiculturalism plays out a drama in the educational realm that originates in the outside society,” he said. “In the classroom, we might term it equal curricular opportunity."Brodhead pointed out that throughout history higher education has constantly revised the areas that it finds useful and meaningful for study. He noted that although he was steeped in a traditional American literary canon, he has recently added works by such figures as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Frederick Douglass to his course reading lists and is working on a recently unearthed narrative by an overlooked, 19th-century black intellectual. “My teaching and work have been immensely enriched,” he said, “by works outside the traditional canon. The addition of these authors changes the meaning of everything and makes you realize how flat the field of vision was before. These changes have resulted in a real renovation of education.”

However, Brodhead was quick to point out that pitfalls abound in pursuing what he called an “inclusionistic curriculum.” There is, he said, “an undeniable danger of tokenism. No educational program has a monopoly on wisdom. There is a bigoted way of opposing bigotry, and the notion that only one of that kind can teach works of that kind is wrong. The world of separate groups is the world of Yugoslavia. We need common structures and values to protect separate groups from the depredations of other separate groups.”

Brodhead’s theme was picked up in another form during the assembly sessions on Yale and its relations with the city of New Haven. The increasing impact of New Haven’s woes on Yale has been widely reported. Less well known is the importance of Yale’s many programs dedicated to the surrounding community—and the benefits they bring not only to New Haven but to Yale. “New Haven is an integral part of the learning environment at Yale,” said Moreno in the course of moderating a panel on clinical programs and community outreach. The panelists included Yamalee Birmingham ’76, ’95MD, who cofounded a Medical School program to pair medical students with pregnant women in the community. The program assists the women, who are often poor and unprepared for the demands of pregnancy, and also trains students in hands-on clinical and public health service. Panelist Henry Fernandez '93JD cofounded and now directs leap (Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership), a mentoring program for New Haven children. Primarily a summer program, with continuing contact between the children and their mentors during the academic year, leap has grown into the city’s largest children’s service agency. “We work with the poorest children in the poorest neighborhoods in the city,” said Fernandez. “It makes a huge difference in the way that Yale is perceived.”

Another form of contact between the communities is represented by a program at the School of Architecture known as the first-year building project, which was outlined to the delegates by the school’s dean, Fred Koetter. For the past 27 years, Yale architecture students have chosen a design and building project to undertake in the community, held a design competition among themselves, and then built the winning design during the following summer. In each of the past five years, the students have built single- or two-family dwellings in poor neighborhoods in association with Habitat for Humanity. Beyond the significant benefits for the families who help to build and then occupy the houses and the neighborhood improvements that result, Koetter believes the projects have had enormous educational importance for the students. “Many of our students alter their career objectives as a result of this experience,” he said.

According to Stephen Wizner, the William O. Douglas Clinical Professor of Law, his students, too, may find their careers changed by contact with the city. Wizner oversees what he describes as a “large, diversified law firm,” the Law School’s clinical programs, with a $1 million annual budget dedicated to providing legal aid to city residents who would otherwise be unable to afford it. “New Haven,” said Wizner, “is an incredibly valuable location to be in. Sometimes students can only learn experientially.” As participants in the program, the law students represent local clients in a range of legal areas, including housing, disability, immigration, and prison issues. And they are reaching out in other directions as well. Recently, students in clinical programs from the schools of Law, Architecture, and the School of Organization and Management have joined forces to launch a housing and community development clinic.

The assembly’s Friday afternoon session shifted the focus from Yale’s relations with the city to the University itself. Most of the delegates dispersed to the residential colleges to meet with faculty members, fellows, and students to get a firsthand sense of the undergraduate living environment. Retired Rear Admiral and former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Gerald Thomas brought together four students and two faculty members with 20 delegates in his living room to talk about life at Davenport College. But he and his colleagues pointed out that the residential colleges are no longer the only choice for student housing. In the past few years, according to University administrators, there has been a surge in the number of undergraduates choosing to live off campus, most often because they can do it for less money than living and eating in the colleges. That group now accounts for slightly under 15 percent of the student body, and the trend has raised fears that the college system might be undermined. But Thomas and students from Davenport said that those fears have not been realized because most students living off campus continue to keep close ties to their colleges through social events and other activities.

Regardless of where Yale students live these days, they must all rely heavily on one of the University’s greatest resources, its powerful collections in a vast range of areas, from obscure papyrus manuscripts to some of the best-known paintings anywhere. Although the collections draw visitors from around the world, they remain above all teaching and research tools, a point impressed on those delegates who took one of the special tours provided by the assembly organizers. Faculty members who work directly with the materials served as expert guides through such well-known treasure houses as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Art Gallery’s Garvan Collection of American Furniture, and the Sterling Library’s Cole Porter collection.

For some of the delegates, the most intriguing of the collections was the least known. According to Richard Rephann '64MusM, the director of the Collection of Musical Instruments, his domain is the only such resource at a major university. The collection of more than 800 instruments is housed in a historic former fraternity house on Hillhouse Avenue and is particularly strong in European pieces made between 1550 and 1850. “One could not form this collection today,” said Rephann, “even if one had unlimited funds.” Rephann, who teaches harpsichord at the School of Music, pointed out the great educational advantage offered by such a collection for students who can listen to and play instruments like those used by Johann Sebastian Bach.

At Friday evening’s closing dinner in Commons, President Richard Levin addressed the delegates and guests, touching on many of the assembly’s themes. “There is a very special culture that makes learning possible,” he concluded, describing that culture as one that permits “untrammeled freedom of inquiry and expression.”  the end


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