Yale for Life gives alumni the intellectual rigor they’ve been craving
In June, alumni scholars from far-flung states and countries, from different professional backgrounds and class years, converged on campus. What they shared was a deep interest in learning — in studying the humanities and exploring ideas with some of Yale’s most distinguished faculty. They were here to take part in Yale for Life, which gives alumni the opportunity to explore intellectually rigorous topics in a small-group seminar format over the course of a week.
This year’s offerings included “The Dark Arts of Civilization,” “American Nationhood: North and South” and “Histories of the Self.” Participants were sent up to 10,000 pages of reading material over the winter to prepare them for the discussions ahead.
Andrew Lipka ’78, who coordinates Yale for Life and participates in nearly every course, says he longed for the kind of Directed Studies curriculum his son and daughter had in their Yale undergraduate years. He graduated with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. The program, launched in the summer of 2011, was originally called Directed Studies for Life, but the essentials were the same: an educational immersion experience around a single humanities topic, lots of reading and discussion, and no tests.
“This is a way for alumni to reconnect with the university in the most authentic way,” Lipka says. “It’s the way you felt while at Yale — that the whole world is open to you.”
Returning scholar Motria Ukrainskyj ’82 is a surgeon by day, typically consumed with the logistics of her work with data, numbers and patient information. “Yale for Life makes me think in ways I don’t think at work,” she says. “It’s important to be exposed to the humanities. It helps you think outside the box and it’s a way of connecting with your patients.”
She participated in “Histories of the Self,” which explored the philosophical understanding of the self by the ancient Greeks, as well as present-day conceptions of race, gender, and personal identities. The course was led by Ayesha Ramachandran, assistant professor of comparative literature, and Marta Figlerowicz, assistant professor of comparative literature and English. During the week, additional professors joined, including Tamar Szabó Gendler, dean of the Faulty of Arts and Sciences and the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy, who described her own experiences with a transgender daughter, and Richard Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a MacArthur Fellow, who discussed the evolution of the concept of beauty.
“You get into the real substance of these topics,” says repeat Yale-for-Lifer Dale Ponikvar ’71, a retired corporate lawyer who also participated in “Histories of the Self.” Ponikvar had been a philosophy major at Yale, and says that throughout his life he craved the kind of intellectual inquiry he found as an undergrad. He’s now taken seven Yale for Life courses. He admits that while he would carve out time for himself to read fiction late at night — works by Faulkner and Hemingway — he missed the engagement of the Yale classroom. “These courses step into a need,” he says. “There’s a seriousness of the curriculum and outstanding faculty.”
The faculty are a huge draw, says Lipka, and have included Akhil Reed Amar, Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science; Steven B. Smith, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy; Emily Greenwood, professor and chair of the Department of Classics; and Pulitzer Prize winner John Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History.
The faculty also speak of the transformative nature of the Yale for Life experience.
The seminar structure of Yale for Life, says Greenwood, “places much greater emphasis on the ability of faculty instructors to offer coherent arcs of interpretation and to demonstrate how different academic debates and forms of scholarship help to make sense of this material.” At the same time, she says, the varied professional backgrounds of the scholars lent richness to the discussions. “Since the alumni scholars in our group came from different academic and professional backgrounds, there was no modish consensus about how to interpret literature and other media, and this led to some very interesting discussions about different schools of interpretation and fostered critical reflection on our own seminar discussions.”
Greenwood was one of the lead faculty teaching “The Dark Arts of Civilization,” an in-depth exploration of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” across generations and cultures.
“Now I know ‘The Tempest’ was intended by Shakespeare to be a summation of all his work,” Ponkivar says. “I’m reading Shakespeare again, and I see multiple plays a year in New York, and I see it differently.”
As part of the course, the alumni scholars considered the meaning of adaptation. They read Caribbean authors, French and Spanish versions, and a Jamaican poet. Students from the Yale School of Drama also did scene work to help the scholars compare dialogue between Prospero and Caliban with Aimé Césaire’s version in his 1969 adaptation of the play.
“This vivid and immersive experience was the best possible example of the difference that theater makes to the study of works written for the stage,” Greenwood says.
When the courses end, conversations between faculty and scholars continue in a Google Group for Yale for Life alumni where more than 200 members engage in ongoing discussions.
Several alumni describe Yale for Life as a new model for expanding the role of the university. Azamat Kumykov ’15 M.A.S., who lives in Moscow, has participated in several of the courses and says they inspired him to pursue a doctorate at Cambridge.
“I really believe this is the next big thing for education,” he says. “Learning does not end at age 21, or even 28. It’s a lifelong pursuit.”