I frequently reference a cute little cheat sheet called “Yale at a Glance,” a pamphlet the Visitor’s Center uses to stun tourists and woo prospective students, and which it provided to me before I enrolled. Among the highlighted facts about Yale, a bullet point reads: “Joint B.A./M.A. programs.” Getting a master’s while at college? A great selling point for Yale.
Yet when new Bulldogs familiar with this pamphlet arrive on campus, they will be surprised to learn that the joint B.A/M.A. program, unlike its special peer programs such as Directed Studies or Perspectives on Science, can hardly be found anywhere: The annual Yale Academic Fair holds fast to a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” doctrine; any suspicious trace of the program’s existence is purged from the Web sites of most, if not all, Yale departments; and the Blue Book, craftily confusing as it always is, only elaborates on the program under the section “Special Arrangements” in Chapter III, “Academic Regulations.” Pray that people have the patience and the excessive curiosity to dig into it.
Ironically, many Yale departments wish for the opposite. In the honest words of one department’s director of graduate studies, most departments, including his own, indeed “discourage” students from pursuing joint bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The argument is that the joint B.A./M.A. program, with little tangible benefit to Yale undergraduates, is fundamentally against the concept of a liberal arts education, leaving the poor participant no time for fun or interesting classes outside a specific academic discipline.
Some might fear that the workload of the program can be so daunting that its participants will inevitably turn into hermits. Quite the contrary. I know a joint bachelor’s/master’s candidate sitting on the board of a prestigious international (nonstudent) organization, another spending 40 or more hours a week working on the Oldest College Daily and a third directing an anti-HIV initiative in South Africa and Thailand. Their lives outside the classroom are as full and interesting as those of students who are not taking the program.
In fact, for most humanities and social science departments, the joint bachelor’s/master’s degree doesn’t entail a strictly rigid schedule: It requires only six to eight extra graduate-level credits, and, for those that require eight credits (the Political Science Department, for example), many of the course are cross-listed as undergraduate-level. Think about those electrical engineering majors who need 20 or more classes to complete the bachelor’s of science degree; their lives look no less intense than those of many students in the joint bachelor’s/master’s degrees.
Regarding Yale’s liberal arts philosophy, the joint B.A./M.A. program is structured to advance, not violate, such a goal. Only students in their sixth semester are eligible to enroll in the program — like all other undergraduates, candidates for the joint B.A./M.A. degree are expected to study, particularly in the first two and half years, a reasonable diversity of subject matter and approaches.
Perhaps more importantly, we have to recognize that although college is a place for the discovery of new interests and abilities, breadth is not the end in itself. Exposure and exploration are meant to help students expand their minds’ power and to prepare them answer the ultimate questions: “Who am I? What motivates me in my life?”
Admittedly, not everyone can, or should, come up with a definite answer in college. But for the student who, through sufficient contemplation, has been able to make a conscious choice, it’s Yale’s indisputable duty to applaud the conclusion of that investigation, whether the endpoint is ancient philosophy or rain forest conservation, and do everything in its capacity to support that student’s efforts in pursuing his own motivation.
At the class of 2007’s commencement, Yale proudly advertised that two of the four winners of the Roosevelt L. Thompson prize for community service undertook the joint B.A./M.A. program. The University congratulated their joint bachelor’s/master’s degrees as credentials of motivation and intellect capability. Obviously, for Yale, the program is not like that invisible girlfriend that one doesn’t wish friends to know.
Why, then, should Yale keep the program in the dark? It will be unnecessary, of course, to actively publicize the program — after all, it is not for everyone. But for the student who dares to embark on this challenging expedition, I say let him continue on his journey. That’s the true spirit of lux et veritas; that’s the true spirit of arête; and that’s the true spirit of Yale. Don’t destroy that spirit; protect it, embrace it.
Someday, the News be my witness, it will make us proud.
Robert Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.