In the four decades after World War II, six to 12 seniors at Yale would spend their final year as “Scholars of the House.” Instead of taking classes for credit, they devoted the entire year to an interdisciplinary project of their choice. Most wrote 250-page essays, but others painted portraits, composed symphonies and ballets or produced novels and plays. Once every two weeks, they gathered with faculty members for dinner at the Torch Club, where they discussed the progress of their work.
First mooted by the wartime Course of Study Committee with veteran students in mind, the “Scholars of the House” program embodied the postwar educational ideals of independence, initiative and intellectual freedom. The vast majority of seniors did not, of course, embark on these deeply ambitious projects. But for those who found their bliss, that experience seems to have been the “good life.” For that reason alone, Yale would do well to revive the program.
But apart from the impact on the participants themselves, this opportunity would enrich the intellectual life of the University at large. In recent years, there has been significant advocacy for more courses and faculty members in historically marginalized disciplines, such as Ethnicity, Race and Migration and Asian American studies. While this is a worthy cause, it also belies the small-C conservative nature of the academy, evincing the reality that teaching in universities will always lag behind extant scholarship.
Unlike graduate students and junior faculty members, who must contend with the exigencies of the academic job market, undergraduates are freer to take genuine intellectual risks. For both themselves and their peers, a new generation of “Scholars of the House” could fill the gaps that so many have pointed out in the Blue Book, be it the highly theoretical nature of the computer science major or the lack of classes in disability studies.
Shaped by their zeitgeist, past “Scholars of the House” frequently pushed at boundaries of the academy — and indeed, of their society. As a sophomore in 1963, Alan Mallach ’66 worked on the Freedom Summer campaign in Missouri, before returning to Yale to write about radical politics in New York City. A few years later, in 1969, Armstead Robinson wrote a 600-page monograph on the aftermath of slavery in Memphis, even as he helped to design the newly announced major in African American studies. In 1974, Warrington W. Hudlin II ’74 directed the film, “Black at Yale,” which is still screened on college campuses and continues to receive critical attention. And long before Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies took its current shape, Maia Ettinger ’83 — a leading campus activist of her time — authored “Homophobia: Three Essays.” As “Scholars of the House,” these undergraduates did not only benefit from Yale’s shelter, but extended the overhang of its roof.
Or, to borrow the idiom of Yale’s most popular class ever, these students did not “hack yo’self” — they hacked the world.
At its best, a new “Scholars of the House” program would give committed students the time and freedom to engage in a labor of love. They would still be able to audit classes and attend talks, exhibitions or performances but without the pressure of grades. In a worse-case scenario, students would whittle their time away with nothing to show for it — not that different from taking three guts in a semester. Perhaps the best thing about this arrangement would be the luxury to fail, with no real long-term consequence — an opportunity we all too often deny our brightest minds today (in 1969, a Scholar charmingly titled his project “Unsuccessful Attempts at Poems, Rock Songs”).
So why was the “Scholars of the House” program ultimately discontinued 30 years ago, in 1987? In a nutshell, the commodification of education and the advent of the neoliberal university. As the cost of tuition increased, it made less sense to students, and parents, that they would take no classes for a whole year, and applications declined. An increasingly paternalistic administration worried about the variant quality of projects and the lack of supervision. Independent study courses and one- or two-credit senior essays seemed like far safer options.
For precisely those reasons, I know there is ultimately little chance that Yale will bring back “Scholars of the House.” And in all fairness, Yale students still do fabulous work, as I know from attending weekly Mellon Forums where my peers in Saybrook College present their senior projects. But the forgotten history of “Scholars of the House” invites us to pose some probing questions. Are students simply consumers of knowledge or are they its co-creators? Are we a “company of scholars” or just in the business of education? For what is the University but a center for teaching and learning, broadly understood? These are issues the entire house must grapple with — not just its scholars.
Jun Yan Chua is a senior in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Jan. 30: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this column characterized the East Asian studies at Yale as a historically marginalized discipline. In fact, the column was referring Asian American studies.