With a certain comforting rhythm, Yale undergraduates publicly laud Directed Studies, or bemoan its narrow ethnocentricity. I have not taught in D.S. (but for full disclosure, my spouse teaches in D.S. and is furthermore a white male, teaching the writing of other white males). Still, you might think that I — a youngish, ethnically Chinese scholar of Chinese literature and moreover the intellectual product of the culture wars of the 1990s — would basically agree with certain critiques of the program, as an obsolete, biased, sepia-toned snapshot of Yale of the 1940s. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Directed Studies is a time-tested, but constantly evolving curriculum that makes a lot of sense as it is, spanning the classical period to the beginnings of the 20th century. By the end of the second semester, reading Marx takes on a wholly different resonance to students who will have read precisely the same classical thinkers Marx himself did. It’s a crash course in cultural and textual tradition, and it has been a privilege for me to teach students who have taken its courses and accepted its challenges.
Perhaps I find D.S. so persuasive as a model because I myself am a scholar of another, also largely self-enclosed textual tradition. When Professor Mick Hunter and I came up with the idea of East Asian Languages and Literatures 200, “The Chinese Tradition,” it was precisely to recreate not so much the Chinese canon (or one version of it) as, more broadly, the experience of canon — so that Yale students could hear the same complicated echoes across the 3,000 years of textual continuity as traditional Chinese writers themselves.
When we read Mencius now, we read his works partly as a primary text that dates back to the 4th century BCE, and partly through the prism of other writers. Early on, Mencius was one among many thinkers, all pondering similar questions about human nature and government, but by 1350 CE, the text had become state orthodoxy, memorized from early childhood, tested on in the examination system. A class like “The Chinese Tradition” coheres because of the examination system — like the University, one of the world’s most successful institutional models for cultural preservation — and also because of the continuity of the Chinese tradition, whose sheer volume of text dwarfs that of all European languages added together.
But this tradition is far from a monolith, and one of the great pleasures of studying it from within is not simply to listen for call and response across time, but also to come to recognize that great traditions have been able to generate and integrate internal critiques. Yes, the Chinese state orthodoxy was terribly closed and inhumane to outsiders and commercial interests and women. But the writings of Li Yu (1610-1680) — to name one writer among scores I could choose — make this point with more subtlety, humor and intelligence than any outside observer ever could.
I can understand how a student might be dissatisfied with the incompleteness and seemingly walled-in nature of D.S., but D.S. was never meant to be the summa of humanities studies, just an introduction and a demonstration of the value in carefully reading texts of historical importance. Yale College already has many classes in multiple departments that reflect the rich and diverse cultural legacy of the world. Many of these classes are small and housed in small departments — but that is what OCI and shopping period are for. In my own department, East Asian Languages and Literatures, most of the courses taught by professors have no prerequisites and no language requirement, and we welcome with open arms students with no previous exposure.
To critics and fans of D.S., we are here; we are providing precisely the sort of content you are seeking. We will not offer you the canon, any more than D.S. can or does. There is no one-stop shop. And no, we can’t recreate the past so that it looks the way Yale in its glorious equality and diversity does. But we can help you realize one of the great humanistic desires, to listen and to understand voices from other times, speaking in other languages.
Tina Lu is the chair and professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures. Contact her at email@example.com.