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The Scholars of the House Program at Yale: Praise From the Faculty, Student Criticism

By Walter L. Goldfrank

On alternate Wednesday evenings throughout the school year, ten Yale undergraduates and several Faculty members enter Gothic Strathcona Hall, ride the self-service elevator to the fourth floor, and then stride down the corridor to the plush Torch Room. The students are Yale's Scholars of the House; the Faculty are among their advisers.

Shortly after six, two Scholars carry into the room a bottle of sherry each; some 45 minutes later, dinner is served buffet style by the cooks of the Torch Club, which gives up its room for these bi-weekly affairs.

Finally, at about 7:30, the tables are cleared and put away, and the chairs are arranged in a vague semi-circle. One of the Scholars sits facing the group, reads a section or two from his paper--each one is working on a project of considerable length--and is then subjected to the often fierce criticism of the others present. Immediately following, the process is repeated.

At 9:30, the meeting is over, and the various participants return to their rooms presumably to recommence work on their projects or to read independently. Yet the Torch Room still reeks of smugness, and the "clubby atmosphere" (to quote one of the Scholars) has not filtered through the windows.

Richard B. Sewall, the director of the Scholars of the House program, stated that the dinner meetings are "incidental, not central," to the work of students. This should be the case, for the readings at the most recent dinner were far from impressive, although criticisms offered to the two speakers were both valid and valuable.

What is central to the program is the writing of a 250-page essay or the completion of a project "which must justify by its scope and quality the freedom which has been granted him." This freedom consists of no formal course requirements for the entire Senior year, although the Scholars are encouraged to audit whatever courses they like. Aside from the project, the only requirement is an oral examination in the Scholar's field at the end of the year.

The projects range throughout the curriculum, from American studies to Zoology. This year, for example, papers are being written on such diverse subjects as the later poetry of Yeats, the sociological and psychological aspects of war, Central Rhodesian federation, Karl Kraus (a Viennese journalist), and Morroccan nationalism; one Scholar is writing short stories. As Yale sorely lacks a plethora of creative writing courses, many prospective writers have taken advantage of the program to test their capabilities; in fact, there have usually been more than one creative writer in the program.

According to Sewall, the scholars have "practically complete control of their own educations," their only supervision coming from a faculty adviser. Each member of the group, which averages about twelve a year, is selected from approximately 40 applicants each of whom have at least an 85 average, or in lieu of such an average must be extraordinarily proficient in the field of his special interests. "Most important," the catalogue says, "he must have demonstrated to the satisfaction of his instructors his capacity for independent work."

The idea for the program originated in the deliberations of the Yale College Course of Study Committee of 1940-1945, during the wartime task of reassessing and making recommendations for the undergraduate curriculum. In the fall of 1946, the program was started, on an experimental basis, with six students, most of them veterans who were older and thus thought to be more mature than their classmates. It proved successful, and has been thriving ever since.

According to Sewall, the Scholars of the House program is part of the present tendency in American education to encourage and foster independence and initiative in college students. The program is based on the theory that, for those students with exceptional ability and maturity, "nothing short of a maximum challenge will evoke a maximum response."

The responsibilities of a Scholar of the House are "not for the average, or even the above-average student who has no precisely defined or dynamic interest," Sewall says. "The program has been designed as both a challenge and a symbol: a challenge to those personally and intellectually equipped to respond, and a symbol, to all the rest, of self-induced scholarly and creative work going on independent of the larger undergraduate framework of compulsions and restraints."

Since the emphasis of the program is on the projects, it is by their quality that the program's success may begin to be estimated. "The material covered in the projects goes way beyond that of a Senior Honors essay," Sewall proudly states. "In fact, the essays are often of Ph.D. quality." On the basis of these results, and of the acclaim those who have gone through it unanimously accord, Sewall feels safe in saying that "it's a successful program."

He points out that only four of the 115 Scholars of the House have failed to satisfy the requirements, and that a significant amount of national publication, especially of the creative writing, has come out of the program (this includes two books, Children of the Ladybug, a play by Robert Thom; and The Flourishing Wreath, a critical study of the seventeenth century British poet Thomas Carew by Edward Selig).

Dean William C. DeVane echoes Sewall's feelings about the program. "They've done some surprising things," he says. On the basis of their showing in Scholars of the House, a good number have won graduate scholarships and fellowships. "We like a boy with a creative mind," DeVane emphasizes, "but we do make mistakes." He cites the fact that it is very difficult to judge temperament and determination from interviews and letters of recommendation.

Sewall, too, is quick to admit this, although he feels that it is not a solid argument against the program. "While we've had a few catastrophes," he says, "our casualty rate has been far too small to affect our program in any way. A few errors in judgment have been made, and I suppose more will be made in the future, but the record of academic and creative achievement made by most of the Scholars is extraordinary."

Students reaction, however, is not so unanimously favorable. As one Senior, not in the program, puts it, "I can be either a racket or the most valuable thing at Yale." The program has received sharp criticism not only of its ideals and requirements, but also of its admissions policy and even its title.

Although "very impressive," the title "is both meaningless and misleading," one of the Scholars confesses. For neither is there a Scholar in each of the ten Yale colleges, nor are all of those in the program engaged in scholarship.

He added, "It is my feeling that frequently the entrance standards and the standards of performance are insufficiently high." Another student, not in the program, says that the committee "searches for the big names among undergraduates," citing Scott Sullivan, last year's chairman of the Yale Daily News as an example.

Called "worthless" by one of the group, the bi-weekly dinner meetings are also severely criticized. At these meetings, the group "degenerates into a kind of gentleman's club, a mutual admiration society." He says that there is "little intellectual meeting ground between the various academic disciplines," and that the criticisms of the readings are therefore not very helpful. This statement is the direct antithesis of Dean Devane's comment, "I suspect that the criticism from the fellow student is even more worthwhile than that from his elders."

The sharpest attacks against the program, however, are directed at two of its most vital aspects: whether the Scholars are mature enough to merit the tremendous amount of freedom which is suddenly given them, and whether it is actually worthwhile for bright college seniors to devote an entire year to a project and to preparation for an oral examination.

"Twenty-two is old enough to bear arms, vote, marry, and assume parenthood," says Sewall. "Common sense, and the evidence of the achievement of the Scholars denies the supposition that it is not old enough for this sort of independent work." Physically old1

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