Reward effort with secondary concentrations

Allow me to make a taboo proposal. At the risk of having my Yale ID revoked, I’d like to suggest that we follow Princeton’s lead on something.

No, I’m not suggesting that we convert the residential colleges into eating clubs, whitewash the student body, abandon our fearsome bulldog for some second-rate feline, or start pretending that we go to a country club instead of a university. Rather, I’d like to propose an amendment to the Yale College curriculum.

Taking the lead from Princeton, Yale should institute “certificate programs” in modern languages, as well as in interdisciplinary fields such as urban studies, international relations, intellectual history, public policy and ethics in society. These certificate programs would legitimize students’ academic achievement and provide an incentive to gain expertise in an area of particular interest — all without carrying the clumsy weight (and in the administration’s eyes, the tawdry connotation) of a traditional minor.

This is not a radical concept. In practice, Yale College already has two certificate programs: Ethnicity, Race and Migration and International Studies. These so-called “interdisciplinary second majors” are comprised of a smorgasbord of classes plucked from the pages of the Blue Book. By Yale regulation, both must be pursued in conjunction with another major.

Ethnicity, Race and Migration and International Studies are officially recognized as “interdisciplinary intellectual complements to a primary field of inquiry.” In plain English, this is called a “side order.” Ethnicity, Race and Migration and International Studies are to the core major as the side of fries is to the Big Mac.

In all fairness, to reflect their interdisciplinary nature, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call Ethnicity, Race and Migration and International Studies mixed salads. But no matter the choice of diminutive metaphor: Yale should not be calling an Ethnicity, Race and Migration degree a B.A. To call this a degree is a misleading misnomer: To anybody outside Yale this degree looks like a full B.A., yet within the University, it is acknowledged that this B.A. carries less weight than any other. It is a B.A. which, by the University’s own policy, cannot stand on its own two feet.

But Yale, being Yale, would never stoop to call these programs “minors.” A more fitting designation, and one which Brodhead and Co. in fact advocated in an (obscure) passage of the 2003 Report on Yale College Education, would be the creation of what they call a “secondary concentration” a “new feature for Yale College” which “would have useful applications” across the curriculum.

This is the rough equivalent of what Princeton calls a certificate. Instituting a Yale equivalent of these interdisciplinary programs would do wonders for the curriculum. Prospective Deans of Yale College (that means you, Ian Shapiro), take note: next year, when deciding how to implement the 2003 Report’s sweeping recommendations in Dean Brodhead’s absence, make these interdisciplinary “secondary concentrations” a priority. By pioneering interdisciplinary programs in urban studies, international relations, international political economy, intellectual history, public policy and ethics in society — not to mention interdisciplinary science concentrations such as bioethics and technology in society — you will win enormous favor from undergrads, and at the same time make Yale a more competitive institution.

Furthermore, once Yale takes the plunge in offering certificates for secondary concentrations, I see no reason why this option should be limited to interdisciplinary programs. Specifically, I’d like to see Yale begin to offer certificate programs in modern languages. Offering students a certificate of proficiency to validate their hard work in a foreign language would provide an incentive to continue the study of foreign languages beyond the minimum level. In light of the University’s recent castration of the foreign language requirement, this incentive is crucial. Dangling a carrot in front of those undergrads who want to continue language study could mean the difference between thriving language programs or empty classes.

Critics might argue that language should be pursued for the sake of learning, or that language learning is already on the rise so these measures are unnecessary (“Language study increases,” 11/21/2003), or that one can already list “languages spoken” under the “skills” section on one’s resume.

The sole purpose of studying a language is to attain proficiency, generally with the eventual goal of fluency. Like it or not, this requires a certain degree of “specialization.” This cannot be regarded as a pernicious “force.” Yale is not Star Wars. The Force of Specialization does not wield a light saber or engage in inter-planetary hijinks. The only alternative to Specialization is Linguistic Dilettantism: that is, dilly-dallying in Zulu one semester, and German the next.

Instead of denying the fact that International Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration play a complementary (and, let’s be honest, secondary) role in the curriculum, the administration should accept this fact and embrace it. We all agree that diversity within the curriculum is something to celebrate — that is why we attend a University with such a strong emphasis on the liberal arts. However, Yale’s desire to graduate well-rounded students should not exclude specialization in interdisciplinary fields and foreign languages. The best way to legitimize curricular diversity is to offer recognition where recognition is due.

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