The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


Charles Seymour on the Yale Residential Colleges

The Faculty itself was threatened with a loss of its sense of responsibility for the student. There was danger lest the Yale Faculty come to regard its function as merely the increase of knowledge in some special field rather than the education of Yale undergraduates.

—Charles Seymour

The residential colleges at Yale University, like the Houses at Harvard University, were established with a gift from the educational philanthropist Edward S. Harkness, a Yale graduate. When the colleges opened, a special illustrated edition of Yale’s alumni magazine was published not only to present the collegiate idea but also, no doubt, to cultivate further alumni support for “The College Plan.” That publication included descriptive accounts of each of the colleges, as well as essays on the history of the College Plan by Charles Seymour, on educational aspects of the College Plan by William Clyde DeVane, and on college athletics by Malcom Farmer. What follows is a complete transcription of Charles Seymour’s essay, “History of the College Plan,” first published in The Yale Residential Colleges, the aforesaid special number of The Yale Alumni Weekly, vol. 43, no. 13, 22 December 1933.

History of the College Plan

The new Residential Colleges are a natural evolution from the old Yale system. In them is to be found little that is essentially revolutionary. Every sound academic venture must grow from roots that stretch back into past history and must derive its strength from vital tradition. Both on the intellectual and the social side (and at Yale social combine with intellectual factors to give the undergraduate an education) the College Plan seeks to capitalize values characteristic of the old Yale, some of which run the danger of disappearance under modern conditions. Change is necessary in order to avoid decay. The important thing is to see that the external change that is essential to life shall maintain and not impair the internal spirit.

Yale was founded upon the principle of the small college, with its vivid esprit de corps, drawing its inspiration from the example of the English colleges. It was a family the members of which, Faculty as well as students, were intensely conscious of the bond that held them together. From the earliest days, the Faculty, primarily the tutors, regarded themselves as responsible for the intellectual welfare of the students. The tradition of “good teaching” at Yale is very old. The students, following the natural tendencies of youth, emphasized the social rather than the intellectual aspects of the bond, and developed that sentiment of solidarity that came to be called “Yale Spirit.” Both aspects have persisted and their vitality may explain the fact that Yale has produced both eminent scholars and distinguished citizens. Four years on the Yale Campus prepared the undergraduate not merely for intellectual power but for a sense of social responsibility.

As Yale increased in size and as the curriculum became more complex, the original single-unit organization became inadequate. Graduate and professional schools were founded. Another undergraduate unit, the Sheffield Scientific School, was set up. The University spirit permeated the institution before the official name College was changed to University. But always the undergraduate body was regarded as the soul of Yale. Changes in organization were developed to meet changed conditions. The Class, now as large as the old College, became an undergraduate unit, with its own highly developed esprit de corps, bound always to the other Classes by the sense of loyalty to the larger all-embracing Yale.

But as the Classes continued to grow in size, as the semi-monastic life of the student was invaded by the pleasant but disturbing influence of the automobile and the week-end party, as the increasing freedom of choice in studies threw Freshmen with Juniors, Sophomores with Seniors, the integrity of the Class as a unit broke down. Students in their large lecture courses were far removed from the Faculty. They lacked the supervision of the tutors of the early Yale. The Faculty itself was threatened with a loss of its sense of responsibility for the student. There was danger lest the Yale Faculty come to regard its function as merely the increase of knowledge in some special field rather than the education of Yale undergraduates. The process was hastened and intensified by the break in the continuity of Yale life occasioned by the War.

Obviously there was need of some plan that would give cohesion to the undergraduate body and prevent it from becoming an amorphous mass in which the old values would disappear. Any attempt to rebuild the Class as a vigorous unit of organization promised no results. Class spirit had sprung up naturally as the result of certain conditions. Those conditions had now passed. But a return to the principle of the original small College seemed not merely desirable but possible, provided it could be given physical expression. For more than half a century Yale had operated on the two College system—the Academic and the Scientific Departments. It might operate with even greater success on a ten-college system, each unit possessing the values of a small college with the added advantage of membership in a great university.

Fulfillment of such an idea was made possible by the generosity of Edward S. Harkness, B.A., 1897, devoted benefactor of his alma mater, who has taken the keenest interest in the intellectual and social welfare of the undergraduate. In 1930 he provided funds for the building and educational endowment of eight quadrangles which, following Yale tradition of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, were called “Colleges.” During the three previous years a Faculty committee, including Deans of the undergraduate schools, had worked out the essential details of the plan. It was approved by the Faculties of those Schools and the Corporation, and endorsed by the Alumni Board.

The plan provides ultimately for ten Colleges, each of them including from 170 to 200 undergraduates. Experience abroad and in the United States has proved that there is a definite academic value in a unit of approximately such a size, and it is conclusively borne out by the history of the Class at Yale. Members of the three upper Classes in Yale College, the Sheffield Scientific School, and the Engineering School are admitted to the various Colleges so far as possible in accordance with their individual preferences. Members of the Freshman Class are to live on the Old Campus.

Each College has its own dining hall, in which all the members are expected to take the majority of their meals. It also has its own library and common room, providing facilities for reading in serious and light literature and for social gatherings. A Master, who resides in a house attached to the College quadrangle, is in charge. He is assisted by a group of Faculty members, Fellows of the College, whose studies are in the quadrangle and who if unmarried have their living quarters there. The Master and Fellows assume responsibility for the educational welfare of the student group in the college. They are expected to guide the undergraduate in his choice of courses, in his supplementary reading, in his preparation for the final examinations. Opportunities are thus opened for personal contact between Faculty and undergraduates. The basis of such contacts is not the tyrannical schoolmaster and unwilling school boy relationship, but the principle of co-partnership for the conquest of learning. Opportunities are also opened for the undergraduates to develop social relationships with men of their own age, intimacies which Yale believes to be an invaluable part of education.

The College Plan leaves intact the essential fabric of Yale, both intellectual and social. It provides the chance for development; it does not impose a definite system. On the social side it will wipe out distinction between Yale College and the Sheffield Scientific School; all undergraduates are given equal opportunity for membership in the Colleges. The Fraternities face a new situation and are adapting themselves to new conditions. The recent development of the Junior Fraternities into eating clubs, which dates back less than a decade, will be interfered with by the College dining halls. They will have to seek some other raison d’etre, a condition which they realized in earlier days with reasonable success. As might have been expected, leaders in the Fraternities have loyally recognized that the social interests of the non-Fraternity student have needed some such protection as the Colleges will provide. Yale’s social organizations have always put the welfare of the institution as a whole above any special interests, and, as conditions have changed, have adapted themselves so as to serve and not hamper that welfare.

The College Plan does not touch directly the organization of varsity athletics. In the long run its effect should be to stimulate interest in intercollegiate contests with Yale’s natural rivals. It provides an opportunity for the development of intramural sports between College and College, and makes it possible for the undergraduate who cannot hope to make a Varsity team to satisfy his love of participating in competitive sport.

In the strict educational sense the College Plan leaves control of requirements for the Bachelor’s degree in the hands of the undergraduate Faculties; control of formal courses of study is left, as at present, in the hands of the Departments under the supervision of those Faculties. Students are admitted to lectures without regard to their membership in this College or that. The function of the new Colleges is not to replace the old Faculties but to supplement their teaching: not to provide the student with a new taskmaster but with an ally.

Academic prophecies are usually vain. An institution, especially a university, is made by its men rather than by its organization. Yale’s College Plan starts with the advantage that it is not cut out of whole cloth but has evolved naturally, almost inevitably, from Yale’s historical past. It makes possible on the basis of the undergraduate tradition of the old Yale, the continued vitality of the new. Whether the opportunity is fully capitalized will depend upon the men, Faculty and undergraduates, who will operate the College Plan.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021