Directed Studies, a selective humanities program for freshmen, celebrated its 60th anniversary last Friday with a series of events culminating in a gala at the President’s House.
The daylong conference featured panel discussions among D.S. instructors, students, alumni and professors from other universities, and a speech by Jose Cabranes LAW ’65, a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals judge and former general counsel and law professor at Yale. Panelists spoke about the past and future of Directed Studies as well as the program’s successes and problems. While a number of current and former D.S. students lauded the program, others said the classes attempt to cover too much material and limit students’ ability to take other classes.
Political science graduate student and D.S. alumnus Justin Zaremby ’03 GRD ’08 said D.S. — which features yearlong courses in historical and political thought, philosophy and literature for about 125 freshmen every year — is a well-tried model for humanities instruction.
“It’s very rare for a program to last 60 years,” said Zaremby, who co-organized the conference.
The day began with a panel about “great books” programs in American universities that featured faculty and presidents from five schools, including Yale, St. John’s College in Annapolis — which features a core curriculum based on great books — and Harvard, which has no great books program.
In another panel, graduates and professors discussed the evolution of D.S. from a two-year program, which encompassed math and science in addition to humanities, to its current one-year version.
“Directed Studies started out as an imperialist program,” said economic professor William Nordhaus ’63, who was a D.S. student from 1959 to 1961, said. “The ambition of Directed Studies contracted … in a way that’s much more sensible and gives a little more coherence to the program.”
But history professor Donald Kagan, who helped set the D.S. curriculum in its formative years, said he regrets the shortening of the program.
Eliminating the second year “was one of the stupidest decisions we ever made,” Kagan said.
But several current D.S. students said they doubt they would have applied for the program if it spanned two years.
Diego Flores ’10 said the number of interesting Yale courses is too great to devote two years to a prescribed set of classes.
“I’d personally be very turned off if it were a two-year program,” he said. “That’s taking another year away from experiencing all the course offerings that Yale has.”
Nancy Yi Liang ’08 said because of her time in the one-year program, she wasn’t as prepared as her peers to choose a major suited to her interests, and that D.S. involved more work than she expected.
“A lot of my friends by that time already knew what their majors were, and I wasn’t sure what direction to take,” she said. “It was a lot of work, [and] I wish it was more spread out over the four years.”
The second panel also discussed elitism in D.S. which usually rejects about half of the students who apply to the program each year, according to Maria Menocal, the director of the Whitney Humanities Center and a co-organizer of the conference.
Some panel members said they felt that selective classes and programs are inherent and appropriate at a school such as Yale.
“Yale of all places should not be ashamed of being elite, because that’s what we sell,” Kagan said.
Current and former students said they have mixed feelings about whether D.S. should be expanded. Some students said that as long as the seminar format and small student-professor ratio of D.S. remain the same, they see no problem with expanding the program.
But D.S. alumna Lisa Beth Savitz ’88 said the small size of her class allowed for intimate social interaction and bonding.
“We had great parties, and that wouldn’t happen without the familiar class size of the group,” she said. “But then, why shouldn’t everyone benefit from the program?”
Menocal also said it might be difficult to find enough professors available to teach the added number of small courses needed if the curriculum were expanded to two years.
The final panel of the day, which featured professors from Yale and Stanford, addressed the possible expansion of D.S. content to include non-Western classics.
D.S. Director Jane Levin said she is confident that the program will continue to thrive at Yale.
“I think as long as human beings can reflect about their experience, Directed Studies will be relevant to students,” she said.