Yale: A Short History

Teaching and Great Teachers


Yale's tradition of great teaching goes back more than 200 years - perhaps to the brief tutorship of Jonathan Edwards but most certainly to the same masterful Timothy Dwight who as Tutor (1771-77) first introduced his charges to belles lettres, then later as President so impressed the Yale seniors that in their course with him they took down his "decisions," and published them after his death. In the next generation the enthusiastic Benjamin Silliman proved a wonderfully magnetic lecturer, whatever the students may have thought of chemistry.
Then in the 1830s there came Silliman's son-in-law, that falcon of a geologist, James Dwight Dana; the eccentric astronomer, Elias Loomis; and the avuncular Thomas A. ("Tommy") Thacher whom fathers later asked to look after their sons. Under the old disciplinary course of instruction, which lasted well into the '80s, Yale's teachers were often more feared or detested than loved. Yet some were greatly admired, and all were sharply, even satirically, observed - as witness the nicknames. The students used a quite visible hirsute difference to distinguish Henry Parks "Baldy" Wright (the Dean) from Arthur Williams "Buffalo" Wright (the Professor of Physics). When the quietly influential Greek scholar, Thomas Day "Digamma" Seymour, happened one day to remark to his students that the pass at Thermopylae was "so narrow that-ah-only a goat-ah could get through," he became "Goat" Seymour to succeeding generations. Then there was "Waterloo" Wheeler: every year toward the end of the century the whole college would fondly gather to hear Arthur M. Wheeler give his famous lecture on Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo.
For complacent students and their parents, and for a good many graduates, the shocking thunderer was William Graham (sometimes called "Billy") Sumner with his attacks on protectionism and his sardonic talk of "the forgotten man." But then there came an altogether enthusiastic "Billy", William Lyon Phelps, who brought the excitement of drama and the novel into the English classroom. In History one still speaks of the two bearded "Visigoths," George Burton Adams (Professor 1888 -I9I7) and Sydney Knox Mitchell (Professor 1920-43); and also of "Goat" Seymour's son, the suavely diplomatic Charles Seymour, who would become Provost and President; while a whole cluster of future historians and historians of art would owe their inspiration and choice of career to the magnetic John M. S. Allison, lover of old France.
In Biology there was Lorande Loss Woodruff, on Evolution the courtly Richard Swann Lull. And in the most popular subject, English, between the two wars there came to be a constellation of great teachers and lecturers: W. L. Phelps, Chauncey Brewster Tinker, John M. Berdan, Robert Dudley French and Stanley T Williams. Very few of Yale's graduates of the 1920s and 1930s will not remember at least one professor with both admiration and affection.
William Graham Surnner, Professor of Political and Social Science 1872-1909, teacher of great economists, iconoclast and pioneer student of social mores, author of Folkways (1907) Up until World War II almost all Yale's scholar-teachers in the Arts and Sciences, and not a few from the Law and the Medical Schools, taught under- graduates; and if they were memorable characters they were remembered. Which had an odd consequence. The able Yale Seniors went elsewhere for their graduate and professional training; they felt they already knew Yale's great men in their own fields. By contrast, their counterparts at Harvard, having been taught more largely by graduate fellows or junior faculty, stayed on - to get a taste of Harvard's greats. No doubt the difference between New Haven and Cambridge-Boston also counted. In any case, now the Yale senior faculties are too numerous and talented to be fully exploited by the undergraduates - who yet can choose and benefit from their teaching.

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