Yearning For Great Books

As the senior class of Yale College prepares for its final semester and reflects on the Bright College Years so swiftly gliding by, I have heard one phrase repeated with surprising frequency: “I wish I had done Directed Studies.” It’s a statement that doesn’t accord with the stereotype of Yale seniors as either careerists shaking hands toward Wall Street or activists uninterested in the intellectual foundations of their slogans.
Directed Studies is a full year, freshmen-only Great Books program. The very short, very intense introduction to the Western Canon consists of three courses per semester–one in Literature, Philosophy, and History & Political Thought each. All students together attend lectures by professors like Harold Bloom, Dave Kastan, Donald Kagan, Charles Hill, and others less famous but equally revered by their students. Afterward, students break out into smaller discussion seminars.
The program has a reputation for being demanding, and a quick look at the syllabus shows why. The spring semester in Literature alone includes Don Quijote, War and Peace, Swann in Love, Paradise Lost, Faust, and more. The fall semester in History and Political Thought covers Thucydides’ and Herodotus’ histories, The Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Livy, Tacitus and Augustine! And both are just one out of three for the semester.


The syllabi change slightly each year, but the most significant canonical works stay. Chronologically, the Literature, Philosophy, and History and Political Thought courses take students from Homer to Eliot and Stevens, from Plato to Nietzsche, and from Thucycides and Arendt.
Some have criticized the program as being overambitious. This spring, for example, students are expected to cover Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in two weeks, all while reading Goethe, Flaubert, Burke and the Federalist Paper for their other classes (and probably, as freshmen, doing a daily foreign language class as well). No doubt, freshmen will not leave the program experts in Kantian epistemology. But they will have the broader framework necessary for further inquiry. The sudden immersion in history’s most influential texts makes breaking in to any other field easier and more productive. And many will have fallen in love with some author or some period in intellectual history. A spark will be lit and the remainder of their studies will be better for it.
Despite the difficult and heavy workload, students flock to the program, which must turn away applicants every year. Strong friendships are formed among the students who are sharing the life-changing thrill of reading history’s greatest books. At freshman parties, amid Dionysian mirth and slurred speech, one will often hear a group of freshmen debating: “…America today is like what Thucydides said about Athens after Corcyra–words have lost their meaning…”… “…in the digital era, we’re losing the art of speech–the written, digital word is no substitute; it’s all in the Phaedrus…” ..”…just wait until you get to Nietzsche next semester…” All this goes on until dawn arrives, with her rose red fingers, and the conversations yield to sleep.
Less studious freshmen might roll their eyes at the scene, but they don’t know what they’re missing. Plato claims that the best friendships are based on a shared love of truth. Directed Studies students regularly prove him right.
The Directed Studies program often feeds into the Humanities Major, a course of study similarly broad, and similarly centered around close readings of canonical texts. But many students discover their particular talents for and love of History or Classics or English, and move to those majors. Or some go off and do Biology and medical school, glad they took the time for an introduction to the liberal arts.
Yale University is, no doubt, at times stifling in its political correctness. But the survival and flourishing of Directed Studies should show us how many college students desire real education and how much hope there is for the Great Brooks. It also proves that students and administrators who care about political correctness have nothing to fear from programs like it.
Two years ago, a group of progressive-minded Directed Studies students started a discussion group on the side called “Diversified Studies,” to discuss feminist and multicultural issues related to the texts. Some may be inclined to roll their eyes at this, thinking we already have enough of that. But the “Diversified Studies” students started their conversation within the context of the Great Books, and about the Great Books. They never campaigned against Directed Studies’ existence, they never claimed that the books was irrelevant or pernicious. They went to class, did well, expressed their appreciation for the program, and, on the side, took a progressive, critical perspective on the works. The students cared about political correctness, but saw no conflict between that and taking DS seriously, and studying the canon deeply. It almost gives one hope.
Directed Studies’ students are not without a sense of irony. The program is often humorously referred to as “Dead White Male Studies.” And yet that is only irony, not a sneering dismissal or a political slogan. The students are earnest in their studies.
The Great Books, as these Directed Studies students regularly learn, do not impose a single perspective on their readers, but, rather, provide the intellectual foundation for any discussion, enriching and informing people of all backgrounds and worldviews. A disproportionate percentage of Directed Studies’ students join the Yale Political Union, and it always sastisfying to see even the hard leftists quoting Thucydidies, Burke and Paul, even the conservatives fluent in Marx and Rousseau, at the weekly debates.
There is one point that might appear superficial but is hard to miss. Quite simply, the students of Directed Studies and the Humanities appear very happy. They acquire confidence from their intellectual breadth, and feel joy in contemplating Shakespeare’s world-play and Nietzsche’s aphorisms. They show a love of college and learning that I do not see from the students brooding over econometric regressions or deconstruction. Directed Studies and Humanities students are more apt to devote great time to their studies because they enjoy it for its own sake. Yale professors, too, proclaim their enjoyment in teaching Directed Studies–even though, in the modern university, teaching mere undergraduates about mere canonical works without providing original research will do little to advance their careers.
College undergraduates should appreciate a liberal arts education, after all. Young people including college students, it has been my observation, are interested in love. They would like Plato’s Symposium, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Freud’s letters to his wife, if only they were expected to read them. If they are not, they won’t know what they’re missing. And if the one literature course they are compelled to take is about theory, class or race, they’ll never fall in love with literature.
On an autobiographical note, I started my freshman year doing Biomedical Engineering major. I hadn’t consciously rejected the liberal arts, I just had no knowledge of what they were. It had never occurred to me why somebody would want to study something impractical, old, and written in a foreign language–until I saw how happy my directed peers were, and how impressive their conversations were. I then decided to give those classes a try. I switched to a Humanities major shortly thereafter, and have been very, very happy since, whereas many of my peers see their studies as a tedious obligation.
Part of the reason students (like me, initially) don’t pursue traditional liberal arts education is that they simply don’t know why they might want to. High schools don’t offer classes in philosophy of education or intellectual history, nor do they teach literature in a way to spark students’ love. Nobody doubts the value of the sciences or the utility of the social sciences. But freshmen aren’t so sure about the liberal arts. As such, the duty should fall to university administrators to ensure that freshmen at least give it a try and can find classes about literature that aren’t actually about politics. Perhaps college orientation programs should spend more time talking about education and less about politics, too.
Because of my narrow pragmatism and freshman-year ignorance, I missed my chance to do the program. Though I’ve tried my best to make up for it, I’m sure that, when I leave Yale behind one semester from now, I will have one great regret: “I wish I had done Directed Studies.”

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2 thoughts on “Yearning For Great Books

  1. I enjoyed this piece, I have also grown to regret not doing Directed Studies. I had a similar experience.
    IMO Matt Shaffer is one of the Yale’s better writers right now, I enjoy his Yale Daily News pieces. Keep up the good work.

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