Before embarking on an undergraduate career at Yale, you should know something about Yale’s philosophy of education. Yale College offers a liberal arts education, one that aims to cultivate a broadly informed, highly disciplined intellect without specifying in advance how that intellect will be used. Such an approach to learning regards college as a phase of exploration, a place for the exercise of curiosity, and an opportunity for the discovery of new interests and abilities. The College does not seek primarily to train students in the particulars of a given career, although some students may elect to receive more of that preparation than others. Instead, its main goal is to instill knowledge and skills that students can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose.
The idea of the liberal arts originates in 4th-century B.C. Athens when, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors discuss the necessary curriculum for the citizens of the Republic. Among other things, Socrates points out that any technical skill or craft can be used for good or evil, so the crucial part of education becomes how we learn to tell the difference between them. Socrates thus focuses attention away from what the Greeks called techne or craft and towards the importance of addressing our deepest questions—questions such as what is good, what is wisdom, what is virtue, what is justice? We ask these questions in the service of discovering what it means to live a good life, and particularly, what is it means to live life as a free citizen of the republic. In other words, education for Plato is tied to the good life, and the good life is tied to life in the polis, to civic life. One of the central questions of the Republic is how best to prepare the young for that life. For nearly a century, the scholars and teachers at the academy that Plato founded sought to establish a curriculum that would achieve such a goal.
In Roman times, this incipient curriculum was slowly systematized into seven disciplines divided into the two categories known as the trivium, consisting of the verbal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; and the quadrivium, consisting of the numerical arts of mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. These were also known as the seven pillars of wisdom, because they were understood as the foundation for future learning, and they are also the basis of the liberal arts. In fact, in formal education of the Roman Empire, they were already called the liberal arts—artes liberales—the free arts.
It is important to remember that the phrase liberal arts, literally, “free arts,” does not mean a mish-mash of subjects. It does not mean simply being free to take whatever you want. It means rather those arts necessary for the free citizen, but also, the leisure or freedom to pursue them. It is an irony of our own high-pressure environment that the word “school” deriving from the Greek word for “school,” goes back to the word scholia, which means leisure. Indeed, Aristotle called the disciplines of the liberal arts, “the leisure arts.”
This thumbnail history underscores two things: The first is that the liberal arts are, and have always been, about the formation of the person. It is an intellectual formation but with practical purposes, that is, with the purpose of leading the young to live good lives as citizens within a civic sphere. And the liberal arts do their formative work in the context of leisure. We do not have such leisure, of course, unless we are free from other distractions, such as the conquests by others that might enslave us, or economic and social constraints that might do so in more subtle but equally powerful ways. The liberal arts thus rely on freedom (leisure in one sense), but they also guarantee that freedom by teaching the young the knowledge and skills they need to understand what it means to be human—and by teaching them to make those choices that most speak to our humanity.
Instead of requiring a fixed set of courses for all students, often called a core curriculum, Yale requires a distribution of studies. To ensure that study is neither too narrowly focused nor too diffuse, the College stands behind the principle of distribution as strongly as it supports the principle of concentration. It requires that study be characterized, particularly in the earlier years, by a reasonable diversity of subject matter and approach, and in the later years, by concentration in one of the major programs or departments. In addition, the College requires that all students take courses that develop certain foundational skills—writing, quantitative reasoning, and language competency—that hold the key to opportunities in later study and later life. People who fail to develop these skills at an early stage unknowingly limit their futures. In each skill, students are required to travel some further distance from where they were in high school so that each competence matures and deepens. The best high school writer is still not the writer he or she could be; students who do not use their quantitative or language skills in college commonly lose abilities they once had and can graduate knowing less than when they arrived. The distributional requirements are intended to assure that all graduates of Yale College have an acquaintance with a broad variety of fields of inquiry and approaches to knowledge.
Yale’s distributional requirements stipulate two course credits in each of three disciplinary areas: the humanities and arts, the sciences, and the social sciences. A brief description of each of these areas follows.
Humanities and Arts
Study of the humanities and arts—those subjects that explore how we chronicle and interpret the expression of human experience—cultivates an appreciation of the past and enriches our capacity to participate in the life of our times. By engaging other cultures and civilizations, both ancient and modern, students gain insight into the experiences of others while also obtaining an opportunity to critically examine their own. Through the study and practice of the arts, students analyze, create, and perform works allowing them to explore or experience firsthand the joy and discipline of artistic expression. Rigorous and systematic study of the humanities and the arts fosters tolerance for ambiguity and sophisticated analytic skills that provide essential preparation for careers in most areas of contemporary life. But independently of any specific application, study of these subjects teaches understanding of and delight in the highest achievements of humanity.
Science is the study of the principles of the physical and the natural world through observation and experimentation. The theoretical inquiry, experimental analysis, and firsthand problem solving inextricably linked to scientific inquiry give rise to new modes of thought. Acquiring a broad view of what science is, what it has achieved, and what it might continue to achieve is an essential component of a college education. Close study of a science develops critical faculties that educated citizens need to evaluate natural phenomena and the opinions of experts, and to make, understand, and evaluate arguments about them. Scientific literacy teaches students to appreciate the beauty of the natural and physical worlds often hidden from casual observation but which, once revealed, lend richness to everyday life.
Broadly conceived, the social sciences study human social behavior and networks using a variety of methodologies and both qualitative and quantitative analysis. The disciplines in the social sciences teach us about who we are as social beings and help us appreciate the perspective of the other as well as the particularities of society. Methods in the social sciences test for connections between the familiar and the foreign, the traditional and the contemporary, the individual and the group, the predicted result and the anomalous outcome. Their theories propose explanations for the entire range of human phenomena. Study of the social sciences prepares students for lives of civic engagement and develops a nuanced sense of the world around them.
In addition to the disciplinary area requirements, Yale’s distributional requirements stipulate course credits in each of three skills: writing, quantitative reasoning, and foreign language. A brief description of each of these categories follows.
The study of languages has long been one of the distinctive and defining features of a liberal arts education and, in the world of the twenty-first century, knowledge of more than one language is increasingly important. The benefits of language study include enhanced understanding of how languages work, often resulting in heightened sophistication in the use of one’s own language; unmediated access to texts otherwise available only in translation, or not at all; and the ability to recognize and cross cultural barriers.
The application of quantitative methods is critical to many different disciplines. Mathematics and statistics are basic tools for the natural and the social sciences, and are useful in many of the humanities as well. Information technology and the rigorous dissection of logical arguments in any discipline depend on algorithms and formal logical constructs. An educated person must be able to use quantitative information to make, understand, and evaluate arguments.
The ability to write well is one of the hallmarks of a liberally educated person and is indispensable to advanced research in most disciplines. As students strengthen their writing skills, they develop intellectual practices that distinguish active from passive learners.
In a time of increasing globalization, both academic study of the international world and firsthand experience of foreign cultures are crucial. No Yale College student can afford to remain ignorant of the forces that shape our world, and so Yale College urges all of its students to consider a summer, a term, or a year abroad sometime during their college careers.
Such experience may include course work at foreign universities, intensive language training, directed research, independent projects, internships, laboratory work, and volunteer service. Yale College provides a variety of international opportunities during term time, summers, and post-graduation, as well as a large and growing number of fellowships to support students abroad. Students may seek advice about summer or term-time study abroad, internships abroad, and fellowship funding from the Center for International and Professional Experience.