Changes to an academic curriculum normally do not arouse public controversy, but we do not live in normal times. Yale University’s decision to abolish its venerable “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” has drawn considerable publicity and outrage, surely to the surprise of its instructors. For Tim Barringer, chairman of the art-history department, it was a straightforward act of modernizing. “No one survey course taught in the space of a semester could ever be comprehensive,” he told the Yale Daily News, nor could any single course “be taken as the definitive survey of our discipline.” Instead of that course’s heroic journey from Michelangelo to Jackson Pollock, there will now be a changing roster of four different introductory courses, such as “Global Decorative Arts” or “The Politics of Representation.”
For outside observers, this was yet one more sign of the American university’s dereliction of its responsibility as the carrier of Western culture. Yale “has succumbed to a life-draining decadence” (Wall Street Journal), perpetrated by “a band of hyper-educated Visigoths” (New York Post). As Visigoths go, Yale comes late to the pillaging; for a generation now, universities have quietly been shelving their introductory surveys. Had Yale done so in the 1990s, as Harvard did, it would have passed unnoticed. Or perhaps not, for Yale holds an exceptional place in the history of American art education.
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