When University President Richard Levin retires at the end of the academic year, he will leave much to thank him for: The University is doing well financially. Much of the infrastructure has been rebuilt. There are better relations with New Haven, a new science campus and a rescued divinity school. But shouldn’t we pause and think carefully about what students need to know when they graduate so they can begin to participate in the workplace, contribute productively to society, and do well in life?
The presidential search committee should select a president with a commitment on teaching Yalies to be good citizens and contribute to America’s success. The next president should work with the faculty to train students in, among other things, western civilization and civics.
Yale gave me a lifelong love for learning and scholarship, but the study of western civilization and civics was not part of my Yale education, nor was it part of my daughter’s education at Yale 40 years later. I have had to learn those subjects since graduating, not only because I now see their intrinsic value but also because they are essential in my business. It would have been so much more productive to have studied these areas in core courses in my college years.
When we seek to hire people today in my venture capital business, one thing we look for is a grounding in such core concepts. Some years ago, Tommy Davis, a top-performing venture capitalist, asked me to study the most successful companies he had backed. Those companies’ CEOs attributed their success to traditional, uniquely western values. Most of the undergraduates we review at my firm don’t know about these values and are thus rejected.
Yale has offered Directed Studies since before I was a freshman. But it should offer a similar course that includes the economic impact of western civilization. That knowledge is essential for all freshmen. They should study the great 20th-century thinkers who wrote about hard work, property rights and freedom. They should read Friedrich Hayek, C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. Most important, students should read about Andrew Carnegie, David Rockefeller, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who provided great products and value to millions of people and made America an economic power.
Students need to understand the impact of Western civilization and how it has dramatically increased the per capita wealth of all people in the West since the 16th century. This influence has eluded Africa and, until the last 30 or so years, China and India. Similarly, students should discuss the political philosophies that led the Soviet Union to collapse and the United States to become the economic leader and leader in innovation in the world.
In 2007, the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute noted that college freshmen averaged a score of 50.4 percent on a broad-based civic literacy test, and seniors averaged 54.2 percent — both failing grades. But our government’s structure was based on the founders’ deep and careful understanding of world history and political philosophy. It was carefully crafted by people who didn’t always agree with each other but who understood the issues at hand.
“Should we wander from [these principles] in moments of error or of alarm,” Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, “let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety.” How can we retain our government and way of life if we don’t understand it?
When I was at Yale, the University was very proud of the fact that the largest number of Fortune 500 CEOs came from Yale. This was approximately 10 years before the School of Management was established. The humanities that CEOs had studied at Yale had led them to big success in business. The decline of the humanities is not a good trend if Yale is to sustain its leadership in business.
As we look to Yale’s future, we should consider what an educated person must know. We should address the decline of survey courses. We must not overlook the steady decline of the humanities, especially at a time when the Singaporean government has decided that, to be world leaders, Asians need a strong grounding in the Western tradition of the humanities.
What is the value — the uniqueness — of a Yale education in training leaders for tomorrow? That is the question the next president must answer, and the question the search committee must ask.
Chuck Stetson is a 1967 graduate of Branford College. He is a managing director of PEI Funds and CEO of Essentials in Education.