The announcement recently that Yale will likely create two new area studies majors is a welcome addition to the pantheon of Yale’s majors. While area studies majors sometimes feel an awkward fit nestled among otherwise discipline-specific liberal arts and humanities programs, the need for sustainable area-specific programming for the new majors ensures that Yale’s course offerings remains varied, even for students who choose to stick with more traditional degrees.
The two new programs in question — South Asian Studies and Modern Middle Eastern History — join existing programs on African, Latin American, East Asian and American studies and were formed in part, according to Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, as a response to student demand for more courses focused on those regions of the world. The administration should be praised for its responsiveness on this matter; this newspaper, among other student groups, such as the South Asian Society, has frequently called on Yale to stop focusing its international offerings so intently on East Asia.
It is not necessary to enumerate here the reasons why South Asia and the Middle East are such critical regions for our generation to know about. It’s important therefore not to lose sight of the reason why these new majors are a good addition to Yale’s offerings, namely, the simple fact that the administrative commitment to these programs necessitates a commitment to hire more specialized faculty — and more professors means more courses offered on those subjects.
Many majors already enable students to specialize to some extent on a particular region, and students in many majors — history, political science, anthropology — need to be wise in picking courses that give them sufficient background for writing informed senior essays. The challenge students face is when there is a deficit of courses offered on the topics they want to study. That’s not a challenge unique to students who want to study particular regions; there are undoubtedly science or engineering majors who cannot find faculty that share their specialized interests.
Yale’s commitment to developing two new area studies majors is laudable therefore because it shows Yale’s willingness to acknowledge and fill holes in the breadth of its faculty. And while there are pros and cons to majoring in area studies as opposed to focusing on learning the tools of a more traditional discipline, we can’t complain when Yale expands the number of subjects its students can study in depth, either as elective add-ons to existing majors, or through specific area studies programs.
The committee studying the academic implications of the proposed expansion should bear this in mind: There is student demand for patches to Yale’s academic offerings — in public health, for example — and expansion could be a valuable chance to further diversify and deepen Yale’s program of study.