Yale: A Short History

Course of Study

In its curriculum Yale College began with the six liberal arts, inherited from Harvard and from the universities of England and the Continent. This meant emphasis on the grammar and discipline of the languages (Latin, Greek and occasional Hebrew), with rhetoric and logic brought into exercise by public orations and disputations, and with arithmetic, geometry and a little astronomy for the upperclassmen. Along with these arts went Christian ethics, divinity, and philosophy, to make good citizens or to lay the groundwork for further theological study. Within a few years of the founding, Newton and Locke had been imported; in 1733 the Reverend George Berkeley (afterwards Bishop of Cloyne) sent over his valuable library; in 1743-45 Clap required arithmetic for entrance, introduced fluxions (calculus), and considerably enlarged "the mathematicks" for Juniors; in 1767 the Tutors for the first time gave instruction in English grammar, language, and composition; by 1787 History and Cvil Policy," with Montesquieu, was a Senior study; and in 1802, as if to mark the start of a new age, young Benjamin Silliman was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy. Under the influence of manhood suffrage, the westward movement, and the rise of industry, popu- ar favor turned toward more vocational subjects, and a great outcry arose against the classics and sacred studies as impractical and aristocratic.

  A Liberal Education
"Our object is not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all. "In laying the foundation of a thorough education, it is necessary that all the important mental faculties be brought into exercise.... If the student exercises his reasoning powers only, he will be deficient in imagination and taste, in fervid and impressive eloquence. If he confines his attention to demonstrative evidence, he will be unfitted to decide correctly, in cases of probability. If he relies principally on his memory, his powers of invention will be impaired by disuse. In the course of instruction in this college, it has been an object to maintain such a proportion between the different branches of literature and science, as to form in the student a proper balance of character." Faculty Report of 1828

Stubbornly Yale College stuck to its belief in the liberal arts, in those proven disciplines which from the days of the Greeks and Romans had best exercised the varied faculties of the mind. And in 1828 the Faculty issued its famous Report on the Course of Instruction which (though sometimes abused) became the magna carta of American liberal education for the nineteenth century.
What our Yale elders had (and still have) in mind was, not to bind the future generations to some narrow and outworn concept of leisure-class learning, but to hand on the rich heritage of the Classical - Christian tradition, and in the process also equip American youth with those tools of reasoning, measuring, communicating, and learning which would be the indispensable foundation for the learned professions and for an informed and cultivated citizenship.
As the new sciences and social studies percolated in from abroad, particularly from the German universities, Yale College reduced the older disciplines and struggled to give all the Juniors and Seniors at least a taste each of chemistry, physics, geology, anatomy, law, modern languages, political science, economics, and history. But when Harvard championed the "elective system" and showed how electives might be used to give freedom to teachers and students alike, with the chance for greater mastery in each chosen discipline, the required curriculum everywhere fell apart. For thirty years Yale fought not to lose the old ideals, while admitting some freedom. Then about 1903 the elective tide began to turn, and the slow struggle started to reestablish some order and balance in the much richer and wider fields of modern learning. Harvard adopted the principle of "distribution and concentration," but in practice gave chief emphasis to the concentration. Yale balanced majors and minors, and as early as I915 offered Honors concentration, but has always insisted first of all on a liberal breadth. It might be observed that the Harvard four-course system is a natural consequence and enhancement of concentration; whereas Yale and most of the liberal arts colleges of the nation (until recent experimentations) have preferred the variety and range made possible by five courses at a time. Perhaps it should also be noted that after World War I1 many of the champions of the elective system finally reversed themselves, to impose on underclassmen an almost drastic intermixture of subjects, called General Education. But Yale rejected this extreme, too, and in its "conservative" way maintained the integrity of the basic disciplines, while at the same time offering opportunities for generalist and specialist alike. Thus, under the imaginative leadership of William C. DeVane (Dean of Yale College 1938-63), the prospective B.A. could begin his study with the basic introductory courses or with the Directed Studies program for qualified underclassmen, and could then proceed to choose between the standard majors or interdepartmental majors for upper-classmen, or enroll in an Honors program, or apply for the Scholar of the House privileges reserved for the exceptionally purposeful and able. From 1956 Advanced Placement was encouraged, but as much for purposes of enrichment as for acceleration. And under Georges May (Dean 1963-71) promising Freshmen would find seminars in their residential colleges, early concentration courses under able instructors, opportunities for graduate work as upperclassmen, and even perhaps at a very high level of performance the possibility of earning the two degrees, B.A.-M.A., in four years. At the same time, the distribution requirements were temporarily restated in terms of a voluntary self-education.
This substitution of suasion for requirement testified to the pressures for permissiveness and for pragmatic professional preparation, and accommodated as well the continuing diffraction of learning. Yet the College had not (and has not) given up its belief in the principle of a liberal education. So through times of trouble, without abandonment of its ideals for quality and for breadth, Yale's curriculum has made viable for the future the inheritance of the past and earned for the College an honored place in the leadership of American liberal education. Among college presidents, Yale's A. Whitney Griswold (1950-1963) won national recognition for his vigorous championship of the discipline and understanding to be achieved through the liberal arts.

Back to Resources on Yale History

Contents | The Beginnings | Church and State | The Government of the Faculty | Teaching and Great Teachers | Course of Study
The College System | The Breed of Students | Residential Colleges-and Coeducation | The Making of the University | Recent Developments
Yale's Graduates and the Nation | Rectors and Presidents | Books about Yale | Factual and Statistical Data