March Madness isn’t over yet. Who cares? The admissions game is the most closely followed varsity sport at Yale, and this week brought us some great news: Our team has bounced back from an off year to place second in the division. Well done.
Of course, the fact that Yale’s admissions become more competitive every year is a bit troubling to current students. We joke that “I couldn’t have gotten in here if I were applying now,” and for many of us —statistically speaking — it’s true. It’s not that the senior class has a serious concern about being usurped by incoming freshmen but that there is a necessary consequence of competitive admissions: People have to work harder to get into college than ever before.
That’s more than disturbing. For Yale, in its current undergraduate form, it should be downright alarming. Life before college seems to have fallen into step with life after, making “college success” a stepping stone to nostalgia rather than the real world. When getting into Yale, and getting out, the relevant question is: “What have you done?” But our liberal-arts education teaches us to valorize “the life of the mind” over petty tangible accomplishments. Like it or not, many of us discover too late that we’ve fallen behind the pre-professional herd. The liberal arts may “train you for nothing and prepare you for everything,” but the rest of the world isn’t always prepared for us.
The Yale name still opens plenty of doors, but it’s no secret password to professional success. Sometimes, in fact, it’s a liability. Many future employers, and the rest of the world, associate Yale most frequently with two things: Old Ivy tradition and pointy-headed intellectualism. This is obviously an over-essentialization, and the pop-culture Yale is often patently unbelievable (see also: Skull and Bones conspiracy theorists, C. Montgomery Burns). But like any good cliché, there’s a great deal of truth to it: Both of these attributes describe the concept of the “liberal arts,” which animates the structure of an undergraduate education here, and therefore its tone.
The difference between liberal-arts and pre-professional programs isn’t just content but outlook: No Yale student is being taught who to be, and this is crucial. There are thousands of subtle behaviors that make the difference between professional competence and incompetence; I’ve flunked interviews because the interviewer feared that clients wouldn’t be able to keep up with my rapid-fire speaking style. Insisting on the primacy of the mind — as the education I’m getting does — makes this sort of concern seem superficial. But the mind needs a body to carry it, and “carrying oneself professionally” isn’t on the Yale syllabus. It might be more important than what is.
Admittedly, schoolwork isn’t the be-all and end-all of college; the only people who think Yale is just about class are the pre-meds (and the Marxists, but there are even fewer of them). Despite Yale’s pop-culture image, it’s actually traditional to eschew pointy-headed intellectualism — Kerry and Bush, everybody knows, got Cs. But the Yale they attended deliberately shaped its students into “Yale Men” inside and outside the classroom, and that was what made their future careers.
In a meritocracy, making up pre-professional ground in our spare time looks somewhat different: pouring ourselves into extracurricular activities in an effort to give us the training our B.A.s won’t. The set-builders at the Dramat are the closest most Yale students get to manual labor, and the College Dems’ state lobbying team helps move bills through the Connecticut state legislature; at these points, Yale and the real world miraculously converge. It’s exhilarating, and for many it’s a good career move.
But these students are those who throw themselves least into the liberal-arts ideal that is central to the Yale education. Those who allow themselves to be prepared rather than trained fare less well. I bash UCS career counselors as much as the next person, if not more, but I’ll say this in their defense: It’s not their fault that consulting and i-banking are the only industries designed for people with a lot of mental potential and very few practical skills. The rest of the working world doesn’t seem to need us.
If the liberal-arts education is in fact the key to creating “global leaders,” Yale needs to stand up and fight back (rhetorically, if nothing else) or resign itself to becoming a training ground for career academics. The hyper-powered class of 2012, and all other classes that get into Yale because of what they’ve done, shouldn’t have to face a choice between refusing to put their education first and having nothing to render them employable but the Yale name.
Dara Lind is a junior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.