Since the dawn of time (well … 1701, at least), generations of Elis have begun each year by turning their eyes to the Blue Book. Beginning in 1811 (according to the copies held in Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives), as a roster of students that reads like a who’s who of Yalies past, the Blue Book has since developed into a source of both consternation and inspiration for wide-eyed students. Just as Yale has undergone extensive changes, today’s Yale College Programs of Study carries few traces of ye olde Blue Booke. Follow us as we take an exhilarating journey examining Blue Books through the ages.
We begin our journey in the days of Timothy Dwight 1769 (former University president) and Benjamin Silliman 1796 (professor of chemistry), with one of the first Blue Books in the archives. The Yale of 1825 was essentially four years of Directed Studies (yay!). In the good old days, students traded the SAT for entrance examinations on Cicero, Virgil and Latin grammar. In addition to scoring well on these tests, Yalies had to be at least 14 years old (!), and “testimonials of good moral character [were] in all cases required.” The faculty was small, comprising only the president, five professors and eight tutors (the original TAs). Class choice was nonexistent at Yale — all students followed a course of study centered around the classics for four years. Freshman year featured Livy, Thucydides and Herodotus; sophomore year moved to Horace and philosophy; junior year brought in Homer’s Iliad; and once students advanced to senior status, they moved beyond D.S. into classes such as “Logic” and “Political Economy.” The overall structure of Yale’s education system was not unlike today’s: Each class was divided into two or three groups, each under the tutelage of one of the tutors. These tutors directed all studies for underclassmen, with occasional help from the president and full professors, who were primarily responsible for the senior class.
By the 1870s, Yale’s enrollment had grown to 500-plus students, but little else had changed. For the bulk of their Yale experience, students studied classical political thought, but signs of modernization began to permeate even the Blue Book. Students could now enter what were called “elective studies,” in which those whose primary interest rested in the mathematics could choose to study “Differential and Integral Calculus” instead of Greek during their junior year, and could continue their study of German (what?) instead of Greek, Latin or astronomy (again, what?) in their senior year. Yale now offered financial aid to students, as well! Seventy students per year had their tuition either rescinded or significantly reduced, and the college offered dozens of other scholarships (often named after famous people like Berkeley or Woolsey).
The turn-of-the-century Blue Book shows a Yale of rapid growth. Though entrance examinations still pushed knowledge of classics languages and ideas, students in 1900 enjoyed much more liberty in their course of study than their parents and grandparents. Freshmen still spent a year in D.S., but their sophomore year course choices expanded to include more than 250 classes in areas from physics, English literature, and inorganic chemistry (which was called a “necessary antecedent” to classes into upper-level classes in chemistry and biology). Juniors and seniors had even more choices, including classes about Kant, metaphysics, public finance, Goethe, Old High German, Milton, Assyrian and major English poets. Of course, life was not all peaches and cream at Yale in 1900. At 8:10 a.m. every day, students were obliged to attend prayer services in Battell Chapel. Also, expenses had begun their precipitous rise, ranging from an absolute minimum of $350 per year to the “very liberal” estimate of $800. Still, things were looking up at Yale College.
By this point, Yale had firmly established the concept of the major, and choice ran rampant. The influence of the Greeks had diminished: cyven freshmen could choose history or biology or chemistry or English or naval science. Anything was possible at this new Yale, and students were taking classes markedly similar to today’s. Majors ranged from archaeology to zoology, with metallurgy thrown in. With the establishment of majors, Yale began its trajectory toward modernity, a path it continues to follow to this day.