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.


  • Recent Alum

    Directed Studies is probably the best program that any freshman can take at any college in the country. I would tend to think that the program should be made mandatory for all freshmen, except that then, it would require those who are genuinely interested in the canon to learn among a bunch of people who don't really care, thereby diminishing the quality of the program.

  • Ferny

    I think it's unfair to force other students that don't have interests in the readings presented to take such a class. We don't force DS'ers to take a class on the modern middle east or on the affect of war on societies. Both of those were the kinds of classes I took as a freshmen.

    It bothers me when we favor the idea of the Western cannon. I'd rather develop my own idea of what is necessary in my education.

  • @Ferny

    I know you'd rather develop your own idea of what is necessary in your education.

    I'm here to tell you that you're wrong. You need to understand the Western Canon. It's fundamental to the civilization you live in.

  • @Ferny

    "I'd rather develop my own idea of what is necessary in my education."

    I find it very frustrating that so many people of our generation think that they can educate themselves better than anyone else could ever educate them. If you think that, why are you even at Yale? It used to be that people went to college because they respected the knowledge that could be afforded them by their teachers, and understood that these respectable, learned people knew things and understood things that they didn't know. You should be open to all that Yale has to teach you. The authors of the Western Canon are dead and white and mostly male--yes, it's too bad. It's too bad that the potentially valuable thought of women and minorities in Western culture has been lost, but that doesn't make the thought and the art that we do have less relevant or valuable. They had good ideas, and their ideas informed the thought that drives the world you live in. You don't know everything, and you are, above all, a student--you are here to learn. The best thing you could possibly learn while you're here is something you didn't even realize you could benefit from knowing before you knew it--and if you can't understand that, you are permanently lost to your own arrogance and naivete. If you didn't come to Yale to learn, you should have spent your tuition money on a forged diploma.

    A lot of DSers DO go on to study things like the modern Middle East, and the effect of war on societies is, believe it or not, something the classical western thinkers (Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton…all of these, and more) cared deeply about and thus, DS tackles that issue too. (DSers often learn to speak English properly too, what with the writing of a weekly paper and all…the affect of war on society? Affect is a real word, and you should figure out what it means.) I find it seriously troubling that you think a person could only care about one or the other, could only value knowledge of one kind.

    Stop rejecting the values of those who are older and wiser. They have their blind-spots and their prejudices, but they are your teachers for a reason. And don't discount the value of knowledge you don't have. The reason they call it "humanities" is because in the end, it is the study of humanity. Any knowledge one can gain about our humanity, the essence of who we all are, especially knowledge as rich as that taught in DS, will be deeply pertinent to anything you could ever think of doing, especially if it involves thinking about the conflict in the Middle East, or the effect war has on society.

  • Recent Alum

    #3: People like Ferny illustrate my point. It is a bad idea to require every freshman to take DS not because it would be "unfair" to force people like Ferny to take classes on the western canon, but because it would undermine the learning experience of those freshmen who are genuinely interested to be in the same class as people like Ferny.