Clap for credit — and real liberal arts

I shopped Music 112 this week — “Listening to Music,” as it’s listed in the Blue Book, or “Clapping for Credit,” as it’s more often known — and, getting up after class, realized I’d never felt so deliciously guilty in the course of my Yale academic career. In the span of 50 minutes, I didn’t make one stunning insight, nor did I feel pressure to cite a single dead European thinker. In fact, I hardly took notes. Instead, I listened to music. I sang. I clapped. I hummed. So did my classmates. And we had fun while we were doing it.

There seemed to be a semi-collusive aura hanging over the room as we left the class. The whole thing felt vaguely subversive, almost anti-Yale — as if we needed to keep this gem a secret so the administration wouldn’t get wind of how much fun we were having and yank the course. Because, as much as Yale prides itself on its commitment to a “liberal education,” the version of “liberal education” it’s committed to — that of a quixotic, almost chivalrous benchmark properly imparted by Qualified Professors who preferably hold at least one Ivy League degree — holds no room for experiential learning. Yale may exhibit a near-religious devotion to the image of a dynamic, 21st century “global university,” but its inherited approach to the liberal arts smacks of a conservatism that may soon prove stifling.

I offer as proof of this conservatism my personal experience as a student who has just returned from a yearlong leave of absence. Despite the connotations of that term, over the last year, I was not taking time off to work, nor was I resting, playing, dilly-dallying or recovering from a drug addiction or mental breakdown. I was studying, far more intensely than I’ve ever done at Yale, at a total-immersion Chinese language program in Beijing. Several other Yale students were enrolled in my program. They got credit for the year; I did not. Why? They were juniors. I was — or would have been — a sophomore. And Yale, much as it professes to promote study abroad, will not grant academic credit for study abroad to freshmen, sophomores or seniors.

This sort of opposition to off-campus — or, more locally, out of the classroom — learning permeates this place. Students at other schools get credit for playing in symphony orchestras; students in the YSO get none. Students at other schools might get credit for taking an EMT course; students here get none. One of my housemates, who interned with the Yale Sustainable Food Project this summer, told me that Yale at one point almost cut funding for the garden; in administrators’ eyes, it wasn’t “educational” enough.

True, the fact that Yalies do all these things even without getting academic credit serves as testament to a collective sense of initiative (or, more pessimistically, pressure) that few other schools can rival. But at the same time, the administration’s conservatism seems to fly in the face of stated goals of internationalizing the curriculum and preparing students for the “dynamic global environment” (pardon the enthusiasm) of today’s world. It’s hard to encourage internationalization when only a fourth of a school’s students are allowed to internationalize.

It is no secret that academic snobbery pervades this place, and there seem to be two main tactics for dealing with it: to reject it loudly in public but nurse it silently when it seems no one is looking, or, more commonly, to make an initial show of feigning distaste, and then promptly fill one’s closet with enough YALE T-shirts, sweatshirts and baseball caps to clothe a small army. Either way, there should be general consensus that academic snobbery usually serves a purpose: For better or worse, without this self-consciousness, Yale would not be Yale.

The same cannot be said of a backwards-looking opposition to experiential education, and the antediluvian belief, rooted deep in this institution’s creation myth, that the best education can only happen here. Yale will never be a trade school, and I’m not complaining about the fact that architecture here is more conceptual than practical, that music is more about history and theory than performance or composition, that the Wall Street go-getters who at any other school would major in business here must settle for economics. Yale is not and should not be a RISD, Wharton or Juilliard. At the same time, though, I would encourage the administration to loosen its tie a little bit when it comes to practical training.

When experiential education will broaden a student’s experience instead of narrow it — as is the case for Music 112, and as is the case, I would argue, for gardening, playing in a symphony or studying a language overseas — legitimizing out-of-the-classroom learning can only enhance the University’s ability to make good on its educational promise.

Daniel Weisfield is a sophomore (kind of) in Calhoun College.