In his essay “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis praises teachers of the past who “initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them along. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly.” I like to think of our teachers at Yale as initiating us into the academic traditions to which they have contributed — and to which we, their students, would like to contribute also. It seems to me that one way to begin this is to educate students in the core of knowledge of each tradition — the works of each tradition’s greatest minds.
Yale, like many American universities, has no core curriculum. Our studies within our majors, and the departments that administer them, are for us the “core” of knowledge that we gain from our education. But how do departments at Yale fare in giving all the students in their majors the central knowledge of their traditions of thought? I’d like to review some departments’ core requirements, and then suggest ways of further ensuring that students who leave here may say with authority that they truly studied whatever discipline earned the major portion of their time. Although some version of my argument might well apply to STEM majors, I am going to focus on the humanities departments, since I am most familiar with them.
Several departments in the humanities already have core curricula. The Philosophy Department, for instance, requires all students to take ancient and modern philosophy. No student may leave Yale with a philosophy degree without having read Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. Likewise with English — all students take a yearlong course in English poets from Chaucer to Milton to Elliot. Classics requires a course in Greek and in Roman civilization, where many of the major figures in each society are on the syllabus.
Political Science, the home of political philosophy at Yale, and History, however, have no required text classes. It is possible to graduate with a Political Science degree from Yale without reading Plato, Hobbes or Hegel — in History without glancing at Thucydides, Tacitus or Tocqueville.
It did not always use to be this way, within a specific major or across the college. According to the 1946 Yale Bluebook, for instance, students were required in the summer following freshman year to read certain texts from the “classics of literature, history, biology, science, social science and philosophy.” A student had to pass exams in these books upon return to school. During summers after sophomore and junior year, all students had to read certain books within their majors. And departments administered exams to students within their majors before they graduated.
I’d like to suggest that when each department’s faculty meets to discuss changes to its undergraduate curriculum, they consider reinstituting departmental exams and creating cores if they don’t have them.
A rigorous intra-major core curriculum will set an example to students for how to study each discipline. Who better to emulate in political science than Aristotle? Who has better stated why we study and write history than Herodotus at the beginning of “The History”: so “that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds, manifested by both Greeks and barbarians … and, together with all this, the reason why they fought one another?” I think it would profit students immensely if we saw ourselves as parts of great chains of learning, stretching back centuries, rather than mere individuals studying a certain area of a topic.
There is a second reason why departmental cores make sense — they create community among students and faculty. Directed Studies is the archetype. DSers are sometimes derided as cliquey nerds reading a bunch of irrelevant dead white guys. Nevertheless, many of us never truly “leave” DS. Our conversations never stop referring to our seminars, and the books we read freshmen year are our constant companions at Yale. The DSers I knew in the program revered our teachers, and took their closest friends from among their classmates. DS has its own curriculum, but there is no reason why other departments cannot adopt the same sort of program.
Our majors are where we spend the bulk of our academic time. The departments administering them should transform their students into a rich intellectual community based on a common tradition of knowledge. Our company of scholars will be improved by a shared vocabulary, and we will all be able to better study our particular fields of interest if we have a greater appreciation of the giants who came before us.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .