Alumni return to campus for ‘heavy mental lifting’ in Yale for Life courses
“My annual attendance at Yale for Life (four years running now) is, hands-down, the best week of my year, not to mention the months of fascinating reading to prepare for it,” said Stephen Tomlin ’83 in reflecting on this intensive education program that brings alumni back to campus for close learning with faculty.
Yale for Life conducted two courses this June. Professors Akhil Amar and John Fabian Witt led a program on “A New Birth of Freedom: How the Civil War Era Made a New America” from June 5 to 11. Professors Charles Hill and Bryan Garsten led “World Order, and The Meaning of History” from June 19 to 25.
To ensure active learning and participation, course enrollment is limited. Both courses this year were fully subscribed in a very short time, with 21 participants each. Four alumni took both courses.
The programs featured extensive intellectual content and required a significant time commitment from the participants. Alumni read 7,881 pages for “World Order” and 8,951 pages for “New Birth of Freedom” in the months leading up to the program — allowing the June classes to be in an all-seminar format, offering an opportunity for wide-ranging discussion among the alumni and the professors.
“It is a chance to engage with the most stimulating ideas of our human experience, and to do this in communion with best friends/alumni-scholars and guided by Yale's best and most stimulating faculty,” Tomlin says. “It is a unique opportunity to revisit the ecstasy of intellectual transcendence — something that I once thought was lost forever in dim, Ivy-covered memories.”
Amar said, “At Yale for Life, they [alumni] re-experience Yale at its best. This program recapitulates and replicates the quintessential Yale experience: a bunch of very smart, very earnest people, often with different perspectives, interacting with each other in an intense way. I love the experience of interacting with these extraordinary alumni students. It’s just stunning how much the students have been anticipating their week back at Yale and just how much they have to say.”
Alumni scholars were given unique access to documents not normally available to the public, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis and doctoral dissertation, Yale Professor Joanne Freeman’s unpublished manuscript on a Civil War-related topic, and Yale Professor John Gaddis’ own unpublished manuscript on “Grand Strategy and The Classics.”
“Yale for Life was an explosive experience,” observed Darcy Walker ’71. “For a week you are immersed with the best faculty and fellow alumni in an environment where you are challenged to think in depth and at a universal level. There are no pat answers or easy solutions. It is thinking and analysis and challenges to easy clichés. It demands the best of you and gives you the best in return. I left full of new ideas, new contradictions and the knowledge there was still more to learn.”
The alumni students and Yale faculty joined together outside the classroom for special events around the campus and meals in the residential colleges and in New Haven. Special events included sessions at the Yale Art Gallery, the Law School’s Rare Book Room, the Beinecke Library’s new collection of Lincoln photos, the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, and more.
The “World Order” course finished up with a special event: Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Yale to lead a seminar at the Yale Center for British Art on June 24, the day after Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. Yale President Peter Salovey joined the alumni and faculty for a reception following the event in the museum’s Library Court.
Barbara Guss ’74 said of her engagement with the program, “Now that I’m retired I’ve been spending a lot of time getting physically fit while neglecting that muscle between my ears … the Yale for Life class got me to do some heavy mental lifting among smart people in a well-loved setting that made me feel 18 years old again.”
“The depth of alumni involvement at Yale for Life is unique among educational programs anywhere,” reflected Andrew Lipka ’78, an active Yale alumni volunteer who leads the Yale for Life program. Not only did the alumni participate in 19,488 hours of Yale-related engagement, but the learning continues beyond the time on campus in June, said Lipka. “The close-knit community that arises continues in a year-round conversation that Yale for Life alumni conduct online.”
Yale for Life began with courses in June 2011. Alumni interested in the program and its offerings in the future are invited to visit its website for contact and other information.