Who needs the Great Books?

A personal and political history of Directed Studies—Yale’s boot camp for freshmen who dare.

Molly Worthen ’03, ’11PhD, is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

One of my dearest possessions from my undergraduate days is a faded t-shirt. It was once white, though its color now resembles the hue of three-day-old snow along Chapel Street in February. A miscellany of parody quotations cover the back—some credited to beloved professors, others to Aristotle and Ovid. Very few people would understand these inside jokes, let alone find them funny. Yet I can’t give up this gray rag. It is a badge of honor, a symbol of my lifelong place in the fellowship of Yale’s Western canon seminar program for first-year students, Directed Studies.

My classmates Jeffrey Miller ’03 and Scott Kirschenbaum ’03 designed the shirts as our spring semester came to an end. On the front pocket, they placed a small cartoon of a student doubled over his desk, head in his hands, sitting in a chair labeled “pain.” The shirt captured their classmates’ blend of intellectual self-regard and ostentatious masochism: after all, as newly admitted Yalies, we had applied to a program that required us, every week, to read hundreds of pages and write a paper. DS was not for everyone. The program seemed like a counterculture—and we liked it that way.

I found myself mulling over my time in DS when I visited New Haven at the end of March for “DS@70,” a conference marking the program’s 70th anniversary. Organized by Bryan Garsten, professor of political science and chair of the humanities program, the event featured panel discussions and lectures, followed by a day devoted to reliving our memories in the classroom. Alumni signed up for hour-long seminars on topics ranging from Epictetus to Virginia Woolf, complete with assigned reading ahead of time.

The conference was part nostalgia, part serious reflection on the future of studying Great Books at a time when such an endeavor is under attack—from the right and the left, by crusaders for multiculturalism and by pragmatic politicians and administrators obsessed with a college degree’s cash return on investment.

Yet the more you learn about the history of Directed Studies—and the liberal arts in general—the more you realize that such programs have been “in crisis” and “under fire” for a long time. In 1852, the English theologian John Henry Newman complained about those who expected a “return in kind” on tuition dollars, who believed in “making Education and Instruction ‘useful.’” While DS “was a response to growing concerns over the role of the university in society after the Second World War, it was equally a response to over one hundred years of struggle in the academy,” writes Justin Zaremby ’03, ’07PhD, ’10JD, in his definitive history of the program. (You can download his essay on the Directed Studies website.)

In the wake of World War II, educators struggled with the age-old pressure to be “practical.” But they also worried that two world wars in 30 years’ time implied a grim indictment of civilization’s guardians: the great universities of the West had failed to produce citizens grounded in liberal values. Administrators wavered between the merits of a traditional fixed curriculum and the contemporary vogue for electives and student choice. In 1943, Yale historian George Pierson ’26, ’33PhD, wrote that liberal education was in a “precarious situation.”

Students needed direction. Just three years later, Directed Studies offered it to them. Back then, DS was a two-year program that included math and science as well as history, literature, and philosophy. (Today it requires only a one-year commitment, and—sadly, perhaps—no longer forces humanists to face the sciences.)

The principal founders, including Yale College dean William DeVane ’20, ’26PhD, and English professor Maynard Mack ’32, ’36PhD, hoped to encourage intellectual exploration and give first-year students the firm guidance they needed. “There is at the present time no such order and subordination in most people’s conception of an education,” Mack wrote in a Yale Alumni Magazine article on the program. “We must therefore educate them—and possibly in some measure ourselves—to perceive one.”

At the 70th anniversary celebration, I was struck by how frequently the panelists and alumni echoed the founders of DS. David Bromwich ’73, ’77PhD, Sterling Professor of English and a longtime DS teacher, spoke up for the value of a set curriculum in an age of overwhelming course options: “Students experience choice as a source of anxiety,” he told the crowd.

Stefanie Markovits ’94, ’01PhD, a DS alumna who also teaches in the English department, recalled that she felt disoriented and uncertain about her place at Yale at the start of freshman year. Directed Studies grounded her. When she told us that “it was extraordinary to me how quickly that sense of not belonging was erased—because we were talking about the big questions, questions that are open to everyone,” she sounded uncannily like Maynard Mack. DS, he wrote 70 years ago, “is an effort to recapture, in a modern framework, what many educational theorists now feel was a signal virtue of the old classical curriculum—a community of intellectual experience.”


Recently, on the hunt for some reminder of what that experience felt like when I was 18 years old, I retrieved my old DS notebook from a cardboard box under my bed. Flipping through the pages crammed with tiny script—I must have believed there was an inverse relationship between a person’s intelligence and the size of her handwriting—I was struck by the audacity of the course’s scope. I remembered my giddiness, scribbling notes during a September lecture on Thucydides in the WLH auditorium, at the thought that Yale was entrusting me and my classmates with these enormous ideas, and encouraging us to put them together to make sense of the human experience over millennia.

On the top of one page of notes on Augustine’s City of God, I had written a flow chart that (it now occurs to me) nicely summarizes the history of Yale University, from the DS perspective: “collapse of Roman Empire→Dark Ages→800 AD Reawakening of Europe (Charlemagne)→rise of cities (b/c agricultural surplus)→universities.” There you have it, in five easy steps.

Nowadays I’m a professional historian, and I see that some of these nuggets of DS wisdom were a hair oversimplified. But brazen oversimplification was just the point. It would be easy enough, later in our college careers, to amass the details, the complications, the specialized expertise. The power of DS was the notion that reckless synthesis of vast swaths of human experience was not something to fear or deride—indeed, it was our duty as thinking individuals, and it didn’t have to be perfect to be useful and interesting. A few pages later, I came across another scrawl in the margins: “Meaning of life? See paper notes.” How I wish I had kept that paper!

Directed Studies could have encouraged us to slide into self-indulgent pseudo-philosophy—we had enough of that in late-night hang-outs in the common room, thank you—were it not for the discipline of weekly papers based on close readings of difficult books. I found a couple of my old papers stuffed into the inside cover of my notebook, and I cannot deny that they contain some pretentious sentences. (From a paper comparing Edmund Burke and Ralph Waldo Emerson: “For Burke, history liberates Man. Emersonian Man liberates history.”)

DS encouraged me to write such reckless things—but only if I believed that I could back them up with textual evidence. And the program pressed us to compare our acts of recklessness, to talk them over in the dining hall after lecture, to compare notes on the way to seminar, to camp out together on the peeling vinyl couches of Cross Campus Library (now Bass Library) as we stumbled toward the weekly deadline. It was an experience that showed me just how strenuous and thrilling the life of the mind can be. It made me the slightly reckless, but occasionally interesting, historian I am today.


In 2017, this sort of intellectual community—premised on setting aside one’s intended major and specialized interests in order to read a pile of classic texts—is a countercultural act. The “professional intellectual environment” in much of higher education discourages programs like DS, said Roosevelt Montás, who directs the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia College and joined the panel of DS professors. “These programs provide a kind of antidote to the disintegration of knowledge that has characterized higher education for the past 50 years.” The founders of DS expressed the same concerns three generations ago.

That disintegration has only gotten worse, especially at large public universities like my own institution, where general education requirements are embattled and a host of vocational majors compete with traditional programs. The most dangerous enemies of the study of Great Books are not the progressives who call for a more global definition of “the canon”; adding Confucius to the DS syllabus alongside Plato wouldn’t be a bad idea. The real threat to programs like DS is the endless push to professionalize undergraduate education. Students who might once have majored in English—which usually requires courses in classic literature—now frequently conclude that they are more likely to get a job after graduation if they choose communications or media studies instead.

At Yale, the proliferation of “practical” majors has been limited, thankfully. But one of the themes of Zaremby’s history of DS is that even at Yale, the program has been the peculiar, neglected stepchild in the family of a modern research university.

At many points in its history, financial woes and faculty ambivalence pushed DS to the brink of collapse. Although DS@70 featured a panel of professors who rhapsodized about the joys of teaching Plato and Milton to wide-eyed freshmen, for most of the program’s seven decades, many Yale professors—especially those without tenure—have felt intense pressure to teach in their own departments and devote time to their own research. They (and their department chairs) have been reluctant to commit time to Directed Studies. Moreover, the intense specialization of academic training runs against the demands of teaching in a generalist program covering almost three millennia of classic texts. During one panel discussion, Anthony Kronman ’72PhD, ’75JD, Sterling Professor of Law, told us how hard it is to overcome “the feeling of inhibition, feeling ill-equipped to teach Dante. Who am I to teach Dante?”

This is the real power of Great Books programs like Directed Studies. These texts humble everyone, teachers and students alike. Of course, students are usually oblivious to any impostor syndrome their professors might feel. I remember quavering in my seat and madly scanning my highlighted paperback, trying to come up with a contribution smart enough to impress the gray-haired oracle at the head of the table. On the panel of DS alumni, Robin Kelsey ’84, ’94JD, now dean of arts and humanities at Harvard, recalled the first paper grade he got—a D, followed by a torrent of criticism that ran a page and a half, typed and single-spaced.

When it came time to write the next one, Kelsey said, he had learned fast. He recalled how he felt when he encountered his professor a few days later in Connecticut Hall—and the wave of relief and pride that came when the professor addressed him as “the author of a distinguished paper on King Lear.” Our weekly struggle with formidable texts sometimes ended in disaster, occasionally in victory. As Kelsey said, we learned in Directed Studies that “writing is a form of thinking.”

Here is another way in which Directed Studies bucks convention: it remains one of the few places at Yale where failure is not only okay, but a rite of passage. I’m sure that the program is not immune to the grade inflation that has weakened the meaning of A’s and B’s nationwide. However, I hope that DS students today still take pride in the blizzard of red ink on their papers. I hope that pride endures when we gather for the hundredth anniversary, and beyond: the exhausting, ennobling feeling that comes with taking on eternal questions and struggling toward enlightenment together.  


  • Laz Schneider 61
    Laz Schneider 61, 1:02pm July 05 2017 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Does anyone have records of that brief moment of bringing DS to engineering students known as Carnegie Studies?
    How long did it last? How many students ?
    Is there any attempt to contact them in connection with DS matters.
    While it was DS Light in1957 (2 of 5 courses for each of 4 semesters ), it appears now as pretty much the same as a 1 year DS .

  • Mark Branch
    Mark Branch, 11:02am August 02 2017 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Laz Schneider: It looks like Carnegie Studies in Engineering lasted from 1957 to 1960, when it was dropped for what the university said was lack of funding. Not sure how many people went through it, but it was designed for 60 students per year.

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