The "Academics" page of the Yale Admissions Office website proudly boasts that, since the College's founding, Yale "has been committed to the idea of a liberal education." This commitment has, throughout the institution's history, led Yale to spurn both hyper-specialization and professionalism, believing that training in focused inquiry is the purpose of graduate studies alone. Even decades ago, as Harvard mandated that its students concentrate in a "traditional" discipline as early as sophomore year, Yale created more and more amorphous programs of study that allowed undergraduates to abandon canonical disciplines and instead craft a specific study from a decidedly unspecific arrangement of classes. American Studies was first offered in 1947, and attracted over 100 followers by 1955. In the same interim, Yale's divisional majors—"The Social Sciences," "Social Science and Literature," and "Human Culture and Behavior," to name a few—lured almost 200 students a year with the promise of crafting a major that could encompass various classes within one of Yale's now-defunct four distributional groups.
A second rash of majors came in the '80s, when nine new majors appeared, significantly augmenting the available programs of study. Among the newcomers, EP&E remains particularly popular, attracting from 30 to 40 students each year. Elah Lanis, MC '10, chose the EP&E major for just that reason, saying, "I want to be a political scientist who uses the fields of economics, philosophy, and cognitive science to deal with the real world. The puzzle of effective policy involves pieces from all of these fields."
The continuing popularity among Yale students of interdisciplinary studies, combined with the emergence of postmodern artistic and scholarly fields of investigation, has led to the recent creation of two new majors: Computing in the Arts and Modern Middle East Studies. Both courses of study were proposed by the Yale College Committee on Majors, and will be available to students for five-year trial periods. "Our typical reviews involve meeting with students and faculty in a given major and then discussing enrollment and staffing trends with representatives of the Dean's office and the Provost's Office. For a proposed new major, the process is a little more elaborate but basically along the same lines," said Pericles Lewis, Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Chair of the Committee on Majors. "In the case of the two new majors, faculty who wanted the new major presented proposals with details about the curriculum and staffing and some indication of student interest."
Over the past five terms, the Majors Committee has also reviewed the state of thirteen existing interdisciplinary majors, including International Studies, EP&E, Environmental Studies, and Latin American Studies. A recent Committee report stated, "We found that these endeavors are flourishing intellectually. In our view, all the majors currently meet one key standard posed by the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Majors of 1999-2000: "An undergraduate major should be created or sustained only if it can be centered in a ‘community of discourse' among scholars at Yale that promises…a distinctive advancement of knowledge." However, flaws within these popular interdisciplinary concentrations have often been less publicized. Problems include difficulties with management, staffing, and scourse scheduling for existing majors, as well as reduced professorial commitment to main departments, difficulty in recruiting Directors of Undergraduate Studies, advising hurdles, and lack of curricular clarity.
The new Computers and the Arts major seeks to incorporate new technology into already-existing art and design programs at Yale, while Modern Middle East Studies aims to fill in the holes left by the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations with sociology, political, and history courses that make the major applicable in modern times. "I think the new majors are important for current politics and culture," said Lewis. "The College does not like to create too many new majors, since we always have to worry about staffing and resources. However, the world that we are all studying is constantly changing, and the curriculum has to keep up with those changes." A typical schedule for the new major would include classes such as "Modern Thought" and "Intermediate Arabic." The Committee on Majors' proposal for the Modern Middle Eastern Studies intends for the program to aid in the advancement of Yale as a global university.
The cultural importance of offering these two new courses of study is obvious to the administration. "In the case of the Modern Middle East, this is a region of tremendous social and political importance and it's pretty much the only major region that, until now, had no major associated with it," said Lewis. In terms of computer science, Lewis said, "Yale is uniquely able to combine the scientific and artistic sides of such a major. We have great arts schools and programs and we also have some of the leading computer scientists who are dealing with the arts."
Despite their heralded entry into the Programs of Study, for some students, these majors are too little, too late. Meg Sullivan, MC '08, an Art major in the graphic design concentration, laments that she did not have the Computing and the Arts option as a sophomore. "As a graphic design major, I can see that computers are becoming inseparable from the industry. Yale's current Graphic Design major has a very strong focus on conceptual ideas and broad concepts, and very little focus on actually teaching students to work with the computer. These days every company is looking for a competent web designer."
One issue that arises, then, is how Yale can distribute its time and resources between these conglomerate majors and traditional single majors. Should the University be expanding its academic options, or improving the areas of study that already exist? Students have raised similar concerns. Brandon Johnson, JE '09, is concerned that "these two new majors appear to be more of a reorganization of previous majors than altogether new disciplines. I feel as though the lack of major-specific courses reflects the lack of true thought that went into the process and undercuts the justification for the creation of entirely new majors." Bolstering Johnson's critiques is the sheer fact of student enrollment in majors. Although Lewis asserts the benefits of many trailblazing majors, commitment to them by the student body is thin. No more than eight students per year have majored in Russian and European Studies in the last decade. The same limited student interest plagues Renaissance Studies, Latin American Studies, African Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration. While each of the majors provides exciting new opportunities to their followers, the challenge in creating a new major is to avoid diverting faculty and administrative time disproportionate to interest in the programs. With almost 60 percent of Yale students choosing one of only five majors, leaving more than 65 behind, and the truly open-ended option of the Special Divisional Major used by only one or two a year, the question remains whether a handful of students and the charm of progressiveness merits ever-increasing academic bureaucracy.