Mert Dilek

The Directed Studies program celebrated its 70th anniversary this past weekend with seminars, five panels and a special exhibit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The event, DS@70, spanned two days and attracted more than 200 D.S. graduates, current Yalies and alumni of Yale for Life, a program that brings alumni back to campus every summer to study with Yale professors for a week in a D.S.-style classroom. The first day’s panels discussed both the past of the program, including professors’ and students’ perspective on D.S., and the future of similar curricula. On the second day, attendees and current D.S. students participated in 36 D.S.-style seminars on topics ranging from Jane Austen’s works to Confucius.

“On the one hand, we wanted to have a reunion to celebrate the anniversary of D.S., but we didn’t want to just have a social event,” said Bryan Garsten, political science professor and the chair of Yale’s Humanities Program. “We wanted to have a serious substantive discussion about the issues in liberal education. We also had this idea that the real enthusiasm was about the books and classes, so we thought ‘why not get everyone back into the classroom?’”

At a panel that comprised four current D.S. professors and Roosevelt Montás, the director of Columbia University’s Center for the Core Curriculum, spoke about their experiences teaching D.S. and similar core curriculum courses. Professors praised students for bringing unexpected insights to class discussions, adding that they often see former D.S. students excelling in their upper-level classes. Most of the panel also agreed that teaching D.S. is rewarding because it allows the professors to see the books with fresh perspectives.

“You teach works that you are, or you think you are, deeply familiar with,” said D.S. professor and former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronnman GRD ’72 LAW ’75. “But for me, teaching D.S. works is a way of meeting myself again and trying to figure out what continuities evolve in my readings of these works and in myself.”

At the second panel, “The Student’s Perspective,” D.S. alumni discussed what brought them into the program and how it continues to affect their lives today.

The decisions to commit to the program ranged from interest in a small classroom experience to parental pressure.

“My father read the admissions materials and told me that if I wanted to have a computer at Yale, then I might want to sign up for Directed Studies,” said Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00, the Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing and Law at the Law School and a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

Regardless of the reasons, however, all alumni described D.S. as a transformative experience that stimulated lifelong learning, adding that they often go back to the books in the syllabus later in their lives.

A panel titled “Directed Studies and the Future of Liberal Education” drew professors from Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, among other educators, to discuss whether a liberal arts education is still relevant in modern society and how to best promote it. Panelists suggested interweaving humanities with a vocational course of study and sharing resources with smaller institutions.

“Places, like Yale, that have very large resources, I think they ought to remember the origins of these institutions as philanthropic foundations … and I think that part of the mission has been very much obscured if not totally lost,” Columbia American Studies professor Andrew Delbanco said. “These institutions need to think harder about what they owe to their community.”

Aside from the panels, first-day attendees had the chance to listen to the talk “Why Study the West?” by Fareed Zakaria ’86, the host of CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” and a columnist for the Washington Post, and the talk “Reporter’s Notebook: An Education in Poetry and the News” by Jeffrey Brown, PBS Newshour’s chief correspondent for arts, culture and society. Zakaria argued that, although education should not rest completely on Western history, it should start with it, since the West, in a sense, “invented modernity, the modern age.” Brown spoke about his career, intertwining the talk with poems from his book “The News.”

D.S. staff and the Yale for Life program, led by Andrew Lipka ’78, organized the D.S.-style seminars on the second day. Lipka said the program was founded in the D.S. tradition: In 2011, the first Yale for Life course was called “Directed Studies for Life.”

Alumni attendees interviewed said they enjoyed the events and especially loved going back to the classroom.

“It was fabulous to be back getting the advantage of these wonderful professors now that we are old enough to appreciate them,” David Scharff ’62 said.

Lisa Beth Savitz ’88 said she would like to participate in more events like the reunion and Yale for Life because adults bring a different dimension to readings with their life experience.

Zoe Sharp ’00 said that she enjoyed being back and being immersed in and connected with what students are currently doing and studying at Yale.

“The thing that I enjoyed most was being plunged back into that pure intellectual world,” Thomas Small ’82 said. “You don’t get that very often in life.”

D.S. Director of Undergraduate Studies Kathryn Slanski said that the celebration was successful “beyond expectations” and that alumni and students have already been asking her when the next similar event would take place. She added that she hopes the experience of attending the celebrations and seminars will encourage alumni and students to form their own discussion groups.

“It was moving to see alums and students come together for the purpose of thinking about a program like D.S. and its role in higher education, and also to spend a day reading and discussing challenging books that raise urgent questions, and I am glad to have been a part of it,” she said.

Correction, April 3: The previous version of this story omitted Lisa Beth Savitz’s ’88 last name.