Li: Your canon, for us

When I received my acceptance letter from Directed Studies in the summer of 2006, I had no idea how I got in, or what was to come.

My mom, a typical Chinese parent, was worried I’d commit directed suicide, or come out of my freshman year as a brainwashed humanities major obsessed with the dust of lost civilizations and with no appetite for a big-money career.

One and a half years have passed since I completed Directed Studies. The program did exercise a severe impact on my GPA (a fact I wish I could explain better to impatient interviewers), and those weekly papers hardly made me a Pulitzer-winning writer. But the bottom line is: I survived and I thrived, as did all my fellow international students in the program. And I’m convinced international students in turn helped the program grow and change for the better.

Directed Studies, an interdisciplinary study of classic history, philosophy and literature, was originally designed to combat the movement toward pragmatic, pre-professional studies in modern American education after World War II. International students, coming from countries such as India and China where the idea of a liberal arts education hardly exists, find the mission of the program particularly refreshing and enlightening.

The program pushed a lot of us to reflect on our limited scope of studies in high school, and to explore the spectrum of new ideas that the West has to offer. An international Directed Studies friend recalled how challenging it was for someone used to solid rules like 1+1=2 to see an idea from multiple angles, each more controversial than another. Another student in the program, a friend of mine from India, told me recently that Directed Studies “probably had something to do with my decision to switch from engineering to political science.”

More important for international students, who have just arrived in a completely different society, Directed Studies offers them the best introduction to the roots of the Western civilization; it equips us with the necessary acuity and all the sensibilities required to ponder what exactly the West is and why it’s heading toward its current destination in a systematic way.

This framework of thinking is particularly helpful for foreign students who were born or raised outside the West. One may begin to realize that under the shallow surface of Coca-Cola and Hollywood (think the movie “300,” a movie that Directed Studies students loved), ancient ideas of Greece and Rome laid the bedrock for the social and cultural structure of the West — even drinking parties can be viewed as symposiums in the traditional Greek sense. Since Directed Studies, I have been amazed by how often figures in the Western world such as political leaders and scholars reference, incorporate and borrow the thoughts of ancient thinkers unconsciously. Indeed, the best non-canonical Western writers, who have shaped the minds of decision-makers in history, have all read the canonical writers. Familiarity with their ancient sources helps prospective international leaders communicate effectively with their future Western counterparts.

American students in the program benefit from the presence of their foreign peers as well. Unique perspectives from other philosophical traditions not only heat up discussion and debates, introducing fresh perspectives on the nature of liberty and happiness, but also shed light on the inherent incompleteness and limitations of the Western canon —something the oldest generations of Directed Studies students weren’t fortunate enough to hear. For all those former “DSers” who aspire to undertake the daunting task of spreading American values in this age of globalization, studying how American ideals are understood or twisted in different systems of thinking is becoming more imperative than ever. The international students in the program, among the brightest representatives of their respective cultures, provide future American policymakers the best mirrors.

I can still recall my conversation with a Directed Studies alumnus at the 60th anniversary of Directed Studies in the fall of 2006. The gentleman from the class of 1958 expressed his disappointment that the program no longer sponsors biweekly trips to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to expose students to the art of the great civilizations — including those of the East.

“Well, sir,” I responded, “that’s unfortunate. But the good news is we now have living representatives of Asian civilizations in Directed Studies.” He nodded, acknowledging my point.

He could have asked: “How many?” Back in 2006, I was the first person to have graduated from a Chinese high school ever to join the program. There are three Chinese students in the program now. The (marginal) internationalization of the student body of Directed Studies is delightful to see, and I sincerely hope that the program continues this trend. After all, the great Herodotus, jewel of the Western canon, loved to converse with folks from the East.

Robert Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.

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