A dying relic: Collegiate intellectualism

Welcome to Yale, Class of 2006. Kindly check your opinions at Phelps Gate. Keep your debates out of the dining hall. And if you can abstain from argument, that would be just super, thanks.

Those lines weren’t part of the acceptance letters mailed yesterday from the admissions office, but sometimes one would think the opposite. At Yale and other colleges, the dinner table debate is dead — or so said Michiko Kakutani in a recent article in The New York Times. Kakutani quotes recent books, college publications and college administrators, all of whom agree that students are increasingly reluctant to challenge the intellectual beliefs of their classmates.

Darling of the Times that it is, Yale was no exception. Yale College Deputy Dean Joseph Gordon was quoted as saying that “students are interested in hearing another person’s point of view, but not interested in engaging it, in challenging it or being challenged.” With the diversification of academia and the institution of relativism, the notion of polarized intellectual viewpoints is extinct along with any tension between them. More significantly, the rooting of relativism in the acceptance of a multicultural society means that intellectual beliefs often are tied to personal or cultural backgrounds. Who wants to argue when every statement could be misinterpreted as “Your momma–?”

Last week at dinner we accidentally slipped into a pseudo-intellectual conversation. Actually it was only a round of “Would you rather?” questions, but compared to our usual discussions — the consistency of the day’s macaroni and cheese; who has to sleep on the couch at Myrtle — it was downright scholarly. When it neared debate, though, everyone felt the sudden need to get up and examine the day’s ice cream offerings. I know with whom my friends have hooked up and what color their boxers are, but I’d have an easier time telling you about their second-grade crush than their views on Marxism or the death penalty.

So if you don’t discuss ideas and philosophy in college, what do you talk about? Gossip, sex and heated games of “I have more work than you.” Schools like Yale compulsively include the requisite “students engaged in an intellectual conversation at the dinner table” photo in their propaganda, I mean, admissions viewbooks. If by “intellectual” you mean “plaintive” and by “conversation” you mean glib comic one-upmanship, then yes, that is exactly what they are doing.

Why isn’t Yale a bastion of intellectual exchange? Perhaps it’s our laid-back, gentlemanly heritage. Any debate that might inadvertently pop up in section gets quickly extinguished on the threshold by a leave-it-on-the-field, let’s-shake-hands-and-split-a-keg attitude. The emphasis at Yale on both extracurriculars and academics demands that students wishing to maintain their sanity compartmentalize their lives. Intellectual debates are strictly reserved for places with three-letter abbreviations, like Tuesday night with the YPU. Drag “ideas” into the realm of dining halls or dorm rooms and you might as well write your ticket to Social Nowheresville, Population: You.

Kakutani fears that this lack of intellectualism chips away at students’ ability to test and ground their ideas. But is there room for it in our lives? The sometimes overwhelming pressures Yale places on its students to succeed would be intolerable if, in addition to our schoolwork and outside activities, we always had to spend our time being “intellectual.”

Whatever the case, intellectual discourse at American universities has gone the way of the tree falling in the forest. If a debate starts at dinner but no one wants to hear it, does it make a difference?



Sarah Merriman is a senior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.

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