Zoe Berg

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, a group of Yale undergraduates and a smattering of professors filed into desks in a classroom in Yale’s new Humanities Quadrangle. It was late in the afternoon, the week before Thanksgiving, and there had been a mixup with the room assignment. Still, attention was rapt.

The audience in question was listening to a lecture by the near Eastern languages and civilizations professor Kevin van Bladel, entitled “Western Civilizations and non-Western Civilizations: Genealogy of the Concepts in Higher Education.”

van Bladel’s lecture was the first event of the year in a student-run initiative called ReDirected Studies, or RDS, which provides alternatives to the western canonical tradition widely taught at Yale and explicitly highlighted in the first-year Directed Studies program. The initiative, which hosts lectures, screenings, reading groups and more conducted its first full year of programming via Zoom in 2020–21 and is now operating with full force on campus. In the words of its founding member and current director, Daniel Inojosa ’23, the organization is “subversive in its fundamentals.” It is committed to facilitating a “substantial reconsideration” of the boundaries of Western-ness and canonicity as organizing educational principles.

In the 2019–20 school year, before Inojosa started RDS, he was one of 100-ish first-years in Directed Studies. Commonly called DS, the program consists of three courses: Literature, Historical & Political Thought and Philosophy. In weekly sections and lectures, DS surveys the bedrock texts of what it calls “Western and Near Eastern traditions”— texts like Sophocles’ Antigone, Plato’s Republic and Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed. DS is rigorous and moves quickly, asking students to turn in a paper every week and jumping, for example, from Homer to Virgil to Dante in a matter of weeks.

The program inspires cultish enthusiasm in many of its past and present participants. Its website is studded with testimonials from alumni working in fields from film to finance. “It taught me how to write,” gushes a now-law professor. “I’ve been an architect and planner,” says another alumnus who describes his job as possessing a “breadth of activities, thought, tradition and innovation aspiring to that of DS.”

In a particularly intense pull-quote, Mandla Dube ’19, a student from Zimbabwe, writes that DS changed his understanding of his home country: “I saw our relatively younger societies falling prey to pitfalls, like tyranny and class war, that Aristotle and Plato wrote about over two thousand years ago.”

Inojosa, however, was not quite so pleased. He explained that he felt a “general dissatisfaction with the pedagogical approach of Directed Studies as a program,” which became the impetus for founding RDS.

Among the questions on his mind: What made the books on the DS syllabus western? And what made them worth reading?

Bladel’s lecture addressed these very issues. In it, he explained how the idea of western civilization was constructed, and how it manifests itself in Yale classrooms.  He told the RDS audience that delineated ‘civilizations’ are made to become “social realities” only in institutions of higher education. Universities invented the concept of “Western civilization” and continue to adjudicate its borders. Ideas of ‘the West’ originated in step with Christendom, springing from Graeco-Roman heritage and morphing, after World War II, to encompass cultural Judeo-Christianity.

To Bladel, the so-called West is not nearly as closed or definite an intellectual domain as the academy claims. He noted that Greek classical texts were brought into Asia and Africa and took on their own shapes when translated into such languages as Arabic and Indonesian. Further, though the ‘West’ by classical definition excludes Russia, the course now includes Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy. Russian work was decidedly non-western by the standards of those who first began to define the canon. Its inclusion now seems to be a function of contemporary designations of whiteness and modern European politics, not an authentic designation in intellectual history.

Notions of a cohesive West were not present in the official language used to describe DS until 1976. At that time, the program was transformed from a two-year learning community which allowed students to choose from a menu of humanities courses to the one-year intensive it is today. In the overhaul, the history professor Dr. Donald Kagan redesigned Directed Studies with an explicit emphasis on what he described in writing as “western civilization’s emergence as the exemplary civilization.”

To be fair, the program has added some variety to its author list since its inception. “The western canon doesn’t mean work exclusively in Latin,” said Dr. Paul Freedman. Freedman is a Medievalist and food historian who has been teaching on and off in the program since he arrived at Yale in 2004. He explained that DS’ History & Politics track has seen the addition of The Hebrew Bible and theory by Al Farabi and Maimonides.

These Near-Eastern texts now make up a small but non-negligible percentage of the DS reading list. Their inclusion is an acknowledgement of a wider global dialogue, though their placement in the syllabus still asserts the primacy of European thought. Students are made to see how the monotheism of the Hebrew Bible transformed into Christianity and made its way to Rome. They note how thinkers in the Ottoman Empire read and responded to Aristotle.

The program has also added a few English-language writers and thinkers from across the Atlantic world, including the likes of Derek Walcott and Virginia Woolf. Such writers appear largely in the latter half of the program.

Inojosa was critical of these additions, calling them “diversity picks … backlogged” at the end of the syllabus without sufficient care or context. “Suddenly we enter the period in which women and nonwhite people ostensibly just sprouted out of the woodwork. And there was no other historical reference to them. Which is clearly not an accurate historical narrative,” he said.

In Inojosa’s experience, the program’s Eurocentrism meant a sloppy handling of texts with other cultural influences. This crystalized during the reading of Derek Walcott’s Omeros, a Caribbean poem which reimagines the works of Homer. “Reading Omeros requires a tremendous amount of context that DS did not provide, frankly, by the nature of the program,” Inojosa said. He did not feel his professors were “equipped” to teach a “reappropriation” of the artform “in a distinctly Caribbean context … shaped by the effects of colonialism and slavery … forced immigration and alienation from certain cultural roots and practices.”

These observations provided the basis for one of RDS’ core beliefs: “Diversification is not a sufficient tool.” Simply adding piecemeal to the DS syllabus would not be enough to address the program’s limitations.

Inojosa envisions a total transformation of Directed Studies into a broader humanities program with different tracks, one where there is “room for doubt” about the works on the syllabus, their importance and interrelatedness. For now, he wants to organize targeted RDS events with specific themes, and ensure that the program can continue to exist as a social and intellectual space in coming years. He looks forward to transferring leadership to a successor during this school-year.

He is concerned, however, that he won’t see adequate change. To the contrary, the success of RDS may become “an excuse [for DS] to offload its obligations” onto student organizers.

Nonetheless, Inojosa believes that a flourishing RDS program can be an agent of change. He is grateful for the support and cooperation of the DS faculty, and made special mention of Dr. Katja Lindskog, the DUS of Directed Studies, as an ally and resource.

The feeling goes both ways. Lindskog wrote in an email that she is “wildly grateful and happy” about the existence of ReDirected Studies. “Our program will be all the better for having people both within and without it questioning and challenging the kinds of texts and ideas that we debate in the classroom,” she added.

It is not clear how big the student audience for RDS truly is. Those filling the desks at Bladel’s lecture comprise only a small percentage of the total DS community. Of course, this might not be a direct indicator of interest; DS students, like all Yale students, are busy, and the profile of RDS as a program is still relatively low.

Attitudes about the program’s westernness vary from critical to indifferent to favorable. Arthur Delot-Vilain ’25, a current DS student who did attend Bladel’s lecture, criticized DS for implicitly saying: “We love the western canon. We study the western canon because it is great.” To Delot-Villain, the program “makes some kind of value judgment about what it excludes.”

Other students simply feel they lack an awareness of what they are missing out on.  “I’m so entrenched in the western canon that I don’t really know what’s outside of it, and I think that’s an issue,” said Jordan Davidson, another DS student in the class of ’25.

On the other hand, Davidson’s classmate Eli Buchdahl ’25 maintained that the “particular strain of thought” taught in DS “has been more influential in the way that our specific society and country is structured” than have others. “If you are going to teach a program about a certain canon,” Buchdahl added, “it’s good that it’s the one that has shaped the world that Yale students are living in.”

To Dr. Lindskog, however, questions of canonicity are somewhat secondary. She emphasized that the central aim of DS is not “compiling knowledge” but “practicing skills of thinking about listening to, arguing with, and writing difficult, complex, multifaceted texts that don’t offer any easy answers about how to live and be in the world.” DS is, at least by design, about cultivating skills that are transferable across the many tasks of being a living, learning individual.

With this in mind, Yale’s fervent humanists might be seen more as allies than as enemies — canonical disagreements notwithstanding.

Certainly, they share the same existential threats. Yale, like its peer institutions, is redoubling its investment in STEM, trying to compete in a marketplace ruled by science and tech. President Salovey’s ironically named “For Humanity’’ capital campaign, which launched in October 2021, has an explicit emphasis on the sciences — specifically, per Salovey’s statement to YDN, on areas like data science, computer science, quantum science and engineering.

At the time of DS’ founding in 1947, it was believed that the “common life” could be enriched through the study of a survey of great works, according to Bladel. The program’s originators established DS as a bulwark for intellectual breadth. They believed that liberal arts, and especially the humanities, had value for all people, not only those in the academy.

But since then, the professional world has changed dramatically, and higher education with it.  A list of Yale’s most popular majors is topped by Economics and Biology, where History and English once led the pack.

Students and professors at Yale who are still committed to engaging with old humanistic texts are holding onto a rare conviction, insisting on using their studies to consider life through a “non-utility lens,” as Dr. Freedman put it.

DS students see themselves, in some cases, as actively flouting trends toward STEM and general pre-professionalism. Said Delot-Vilain, “I’m sure people are [doing so], but I’m not reading Aristotle with the idea [that] I’m going to now go into politics and apply these theories.” Delot-Vilain noted an “intrinsic happiness” which he feels when he is engaged in humanistic studies. “I just genuinely really enjoy the structure of reading something, thinking about it, discussing it with other people, and creating some sort of analysis,” he said.

Buchdahl echoed this sentiment. He enjoys the way DS allows him to see intertextual relationships and understand the historical contexts which allowed for them. He appreciates the humanistic texts for their concern with “how we live our lives, how we order our lives,” questions he saw as being “of relevance to everyone.”

“I’m going to graduate and have no hard skills and be unsure about my employment options, but at least I will have thought about things that excite me,” Buchdahl joked.

It would be fair to view this attitude as a kind of luxury, an indulgent approach to education which not everyone can afford. But from a different angle, the humanities are a matter of necessity.

“We cannot escape our human experience at all, no matter how much we delude ourselves into thinking we can,” said Inojosa. He acknowledged that DS taught him to conceptualize things in ways he wouldn’t have on his own, and credits it with introducing him to thinkers he still draws from today, like Aristotle and Hume.

As for Davidson, who was considering dropping out of Directed Studies at the end of the fall semester to pursue fiction-writing and electrical engineering, a lecture by Dr. Marta Figlerowicz on Metamorphoses changed her mind. Mid-lecture, Dr. Figlerowicz screened the music video for the rapper Lil Nas X’s hit single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The video is ripe with influences from Ovid. Davidson explained that the professor’s illumination of the through-lines from Greek myth to American hip hop “solidified the applications of DS to creating media to be consumed in [the] modern day.” This lecture prompted Davidson to rethink the program as a whole and its relevance, and to enroll in its second semester after all. “It’s not a perfect program,” she said, “but it doesn’t have to be.”

Perfection is an unrealistic standard, and there will always be those who love Directed Studies exactly as it is — who are most alive when they are bringing traditions of thought and storytelling into the light, poking and prodding them, fiercely debating them, cherishing them in solitude and community. This is a good unto itself.

But deconstructing DS’ representation of the canon may well be the path forward. It is not only a progressive, inclusive measure, but a logical one, given the arbitrariness of canonization.

In Bladel’s lecture, he cautioned against a false assumption that “the works that survive from antiquity survive because they’re the best.” There are, he said, works which survive which are not deemed ‘worth reading,’ and plenty of texts which we ought to read but do not, because they were not preserved.

One might then wonder whether the DS trademark, the overfull syllabus, contributes to a false sense of the program’s exhaustiveness. Part of the fervor which motivates students to keep long hours in the library, to read all of Inferno in a week, is a sense that the sum of a DS education will be something total, not partial. A student might justifiably ask: If the syllabus is really just a selection of some texts worth reading, why not switch a few of the texts out for other ones (or even cut a few and let students sleep more)? And why not weave a new, expansive story along the way?

ABIGAIL SYLVOR GREENBERG