By September 1827, pressure to crack the traditional definitions of “liberal education” pulsed at the heart of the Yale campus. Three University professors filled their inkwells and began drafting a curricular review, a report that would tip the balance of American higher education and set a mandate for its future.
With strong, steady reforms at the fast-rising Amherst College challenging the University’s classical curriculum, it was time for Yale to speak. As the University’s reputation was at its zenith in 1828, the eyes of the nation’s academic community focused on New Haven.
Former Yale President Rev. Jeremiah Day’s conservative 1828 report ushered in a stagnant era in American higher education, one that would take nearly a century to reverse.
The 1828 review is only one part of a rich history of Yale curricular reviews. A stream of faculty criticism brought down the radical 1953 “Griswold Revolution.” Proposals in other reviews have been less far-reaching, but still sometimes never got off the ground. Bucking historical trends, the 2003 review is both idealistic and pragmatic, a combination professors said would ensure its success.
The Committee on Yale College Education, chaired by Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, included 41 members of the Yale community — administrators, professors, undergraduates and recent graduates. This, too, was a departure from decades past, when half a dozen Yale cronies sat in smoke-filled chambers to decide upon curricular changes.
‘So went Yale, so went the nation’
In the 1820s, American higher education was in a “highly tentative stage of development” as Yale, the “colossus of colleges,” re-examined its academic mission, historian David Potts said in a modern review of Yale’s 1828 review.
“Challenges to the predominance and pedagogy of required courses in Greek and Latin were clear and present,” Potts said.
With quickly-expanding Amherst nipping at Yale’s heels and portraying the University as “stationary,” not meeting “the wants and demands of an enlightened public,” the stage was set for Yale’s long-awaited 1828 review, Potts said.
In the early 19th century, Amherst pushed for a more modern approach to academics. But at Yale, the “dead languages” were considered to be the foundation of a liberal arts education.
“New ideas and new impulses began to stir the pot,” history professor John Demos said at a 2001 Yale Tercentennial symposium. Education reformers sought to “pry open the box of higher education.”
But when Yale released its 1828 report, the nation’s academic institutions followed Yale, maintaining a conservative focus on Latin and Greek.
Liberal education, according to Day and the rest of Yale’s review committee, should “lay the foundation of a superior education” by providing students “the discipline and the furniture of the mind,” the 1828 report reads.
“[In 1828] so went Yale, so went the nation,” Associate Yale College Dean Penelope Laurans said.
Brodhead said he thinks Yale’s 1828 report stood in contrast to Amherst’s then “quick and dirty” approach to education.
“It was written at a time when the future of higher education hung in the balance,” Brodhead said. “The Yale report put the idea of a liberal arts education back at the center of American higher education.”
A ‘political train wreck’
A century and a quarter later, after Yale dropped its Latin and Greek admission requirement, the University embarked on another review.
“During the second World War, you didn’t have Yale as you know it,” history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith said. “You had a military camp and the faculty thought about changing the curriculum in the post-war world. Then you had a major effort at reform which fell absolutely flat on its face.”
The 1953 review, led by former Yale President A. Whitney Griswold, called for sweeping, radical changes to the Yale curriculum. The 1953 editorial board of the Yale Daily News called the Griswold report “potentially the most significant Yale educational document of this century.”
The Griswold Revolution would have replaced freshman and sophomore year courses with a two-year tutor-guided study of “syllabi,” in preparation for a general examination at the end of the sophomore year. Griswold’s review would have established a “sink or swim” system at Yale more similar to curricula at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England than any American university.
The Griswold report received national press coverage, but drew faculty criticism.
“It was absolutely squashed,” said Smith, who reported on the review for the News. “The faculty didn’t have anything to do with it. It was done by a small inner circle of kitchen-cabinet cronies.”
Smith said Griswold’s “chilly” relationship with then-Yale College Dean William DeVane contributed to the faculty’s discontent with the report. He said Griswold intruded on DeVane’s territory by taking “charge of undergraduates.”
The report ended as a “political train wreck,” Smith said.
History professor emeritus Edmund Morgan, who chaired an academic review committee in 1966, said Yale had become “very ingrown” during the Griswold administration.
“Yale was not retaining a national character it had had in the 19th century,” Morgan said. “[But] it has regained that, I think, in the last 50 years.”
‘Lessons have been learned’
Today, as the University implements the proposals of the 2003 report, Brodhead said the review committee has benefitted from past reviews.
“Sure, lessons have been learned,” Brodhead said. “We read [past reports], but we didn’t spend undue time on all of them. Our eyes were on the future and not the past.”
Brodhead said while old reviews were done by a small handful of “wiseheads and greybeards,” his committee was larger, drawing from a wide-ranging group of faculty and students.
But while the reviews of 1828 and 1953 received much national attention, the 2003 review has passed with little fanfare.
“We don’t really have a signal leadership in the same way,” Laurans said. “No institution really does.”
Morgan said he thinks it is “healthy” for national academic leaders to focus on a range of institutions.
“[Universities such as Yale] are thereby required to keep themselves on their toes to retain whatever prestige and whatever leadership qualities they may have.”
With the 2003 review’s diverse committee and modest proposals, Smith said he thinks it is likely to succeed.
“The present report really does relate education to the state of the world whereas Griswold was a disciple of Cardinal John Henry Newman,” Smith said. “[Griswold] said education should deal with pure thought and once you begin to introduce practical implications, you corrupt it. It was a total ivory tower.”