If the Yale administration wants to do something to improve student life, I have a suggestion: Ban the townies from the computer clusters in CCL.
Before the proselytizers of town-gown harmony start reaching for their pitchforks, allow me to present my case. It’s not my place to make value judgments on the average non-Yale-affiliated library user’s choice of dress, habits of hygiene, manner of speech, or choice of Web sites, and, in this column, I don’t intend to make those judgments. It’s true that on two occasions I have had the unexpected privilege of looking up, mid-Orbis search, to witness middle-aged cluster users downloading gay porn. Nevertheless, for the sake of fairness, I will remain neutral on web users’ preferred methods of electronic edification.
A computer terminal, unlike a public park, is not a public good. As any economics major could attest, computer use is neither non-rival nor non-excludable. Every time a member of the general public sits down to play a round of online blackjack, that’s one computer that a Yale student temporarily cannot use.
CCL, furthermore, is not and should not be construed as a public space. I would never propose making access to a national park or a public street contingent on membership in a private club (which is what Yale, in the context of this argument, is. If liberal guilt makes you feel icky about belonging to a private club, feel free to substitute “organization” or “socially beneficial association”). Every common panhandler, graying anti-war activist and aggrieved Local 34/35 member should have the right to raise a ruckus on Wall Street.
Take a stride across the sidewalk to Beinecke Plaza, a privately-owned space that serves as a de facto public thoroughfare, and you’ve got a thornier problem. But I still come down on the side of public access, with the caveat that the property owaner, as the one held liable in the event of injury or damages, should have the right to put an end to potentially injurious activities.
But CCL? Our humble library is neither a Yellowstone Park nor a Beinecke Plaza. It is a subterranean indoor space — a destination, not a thoroughfare. And more symbolically, it is — pause here, take a breath, and imagine uncovering this word in the labyrinthine fictive universe of a Borges story — a library.
The library, as an allegorical battleground between mystery, knowledge and the limits of human agency, was so powerful for Borges because he never forgot that it embodied an epistemological miracle: the creation of an edifice built solely to house knowledge. True, it has become a place where we can check e-mail and gossip with TAs. But it is still, in its essence, a place of study, a place of refuge, spatially and symbolically separate from everyday life — the exact place we go to flee the distractions of normal people, normal conversations, normal online poker games and normal commodifications of intimacy and sex. I don’t think preserving this reverence, this “separateness,” is nostalgic or self-serving. The library is one of our last remaining examples of sacred space.
For those who would accuse me of sacrificing social equality at the altar of self-indulgent bibliophilia, I have just one question, and it’s a serious one: If, as a Yalie, you would argue that allowing middle-aged men to watch porn in our libraries is desirable in light of Yale’s commitment to “public inclusiveness,” whom do you think you’re fooling?
Yale is, and has been since its inception, an institution built on keeping others out. Its value, as a recent New Yorker article noted, depends explicitly on its ability to exclude others — if it failed to do this, it would, by definition, no longer be elite. And, whether you acknowledge it or not, by going to this school and reaping benefits from its exclusivity, you implicitly buy into this system.
This culture of exclusion may have originated in the admissions office, but it has come to define this place. Exclusive seminars and exclusive senior societies are just two obvious examples. But has anyone stopped to consider what it says about us that we now participate in a culture of exclusive cafeterias?
Even the architecture of this place is exclusive. What is a residential college if not a way to define yourself, through stone and brick, against the eleven-twelfths of the other undergraduates who make up this already exclusive university? In the 1920s, when Yale decided to break ground on a new system of dormitories, they could have planned 12 city blocks’ worth of dorms, like every other university, and left it at that. But that wouldn’t be Yale. No — they had to create 12 unique “identities,” with Anglophonic names, and polyester flags, and adorable little quasi-heraldic symbols to match.
Even the word “Yale” — emblazoned, sometimes both literally and figuratively, on our sleeves — is exclusive, proprietary, regulated tightly by the Yale University Licensing Office to ensure that it doesn’t fall into the grubby hands of the public domain.
So, for all the talk about Town-Gown relations, which are of course important, let’s not proceed from false premises. A policy of public exclusion from CCL would be consistent with the ideological ethos of this place. To speak more strongly, the current policy of inclusion is ideologically inconsistent. So, while I’m not going to be the one to start playing bouncer at the entry to CCL, I wouldn’t be surprised if the University eventually did start carding at the door. Exclusivity is probably this institution’s most sacred value. And exclusivity, by definition, depends on exercising one’s ability to exclude.
Daniel Weisfield is a junior in Calhoun College.