At the tercentennial celebration a year ago, Yale President Richard Levin launched a bold plan to review the curriculum of Yale College for the first time in 30 years. The initiative came at the end of a year characterized by global ambition and major policy changes. Levin’s project presented a valuable opportunity to guarantee that, as Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead put it, “those investments pay off to the highest degree of undergraduate education.”
A year later, it remains to be seen whether the committee will be able to accomplish that goal. The group — working in four subcommittees –has spent most of its time so far soliciting input, visiting other schools and researching topics for potential policy recommendations.
The reviewers are right to research their task thoroughly, but they must soon translate reflection into recommendations. Just as the committee sought feedback about the curriculum at the start of its review, it must leave time to seek out opinion on proposed changes before members start to wear down and the process starts to lose momentum.
Levin had broad changes in mind when he initiated the review, and the committee should not hesitate to undertake large and unconventional projects. Doubtless, many such proposals have been presented and discussed. The group’s challenge now is to overcome departmental inertia and the political struggles that invariably accompany such unorthodox ideas.
In the area of interdisciplinary education, for example, the committee must push Yale to transcend the conventional department-based approach. Programs like Ethics, Politics and Economics and International Studies cannot be effective if they are staffed by professors tied primarily to their home departments. Inevitably, the curriculum degenerates into a hodgepodge of courses focused on each professorial speciality, rather than a framework for promoting coherent thought across fields. The committee should recommend that the University hire professors directly into such programs — interdisciplinary scholars can best mold interdisciplinary students.
The committee also has a chance to improve discussion sections, which are clearly one of the current curriculum’s greatest weaknesses. Rethinking the necessity of sections in some disciplines will be useful, and encouraging professors to offer optional sections could considerably improve their quality. The problem here is that most proposals involve cutting a certain number of sections, which means a corresponding pool of graduate students would lose teaching experience. There are ways to address that concern: teaching assistants could team up to lead sections, for instance. The important point is that the committee must not resist topics simply because they could have controversial political consequences.
Interdisciplinary education and discussion sections are only two of the many areas in which vast improvement is possible. Brodhead and his committee have the potential to drive such improvement, but only if they commit themselves to maintaining the energy of the review and producing tangible recommendations soon.