Pomeranz: In education, structure is freedom

I want to apologize to professor Gilles Tarabout. I walked out on his “Indian Popular Religion” lecture not because I found the material boring or the theoretical approach incorrect, but because I had another appointment. Besides, I had more than a little on my mind. What class would complete my requirements? Would look good on my resume? Where are my friends? Should I be applying to jobs?

Today’s Yale has few written rules. But the lack of formal structure doesn’t free us. A separate set of rules takes its place. Internships. Sleeping late on Mondays. Marketable skills. There are roommates to meet and storage shelves to buy. Bluebooking is a social event, not to prepare for learning in any real way.

Some of these rules we know well. We follow the Yale act of dreading senior year, from “I can’t believe we’re seniors!” to “honestly, it was my favorite year.” Following that confession is some advice about spending time with your friends.

As a senior, therefore, I prepared less than ever for classes, partly because now I know OCI better, partly because I know to take classes with the best professors, rather than with interesting-sounding titles, and partly to redo my own freshman Opening Days.

Instead of bluebooking during Camp Yale, I went to the first Directed Studies session. Unlike freshman-year Pomeranz, I did not sit in the front row center. I have learned something.

But I did envy the whole affair: sturdy doors built far from the busyness of Old Campus to keep out the relevance of the world. Wood gargoyles of great authors. A room full of nervous freshmen who all were ragged on as the kid who actually liked English class in high school. To the audible gasp of the room, a strict warning that class is mandatory starting now.

It is hard. It is deliberately inflexible.

Directed Studies is exactly that: directed. It refuses to let kids make decisions as if we know what we’re talking about. For those 125 kids the class of 1937, the University administration and the Whitney Humanities Center have acted as offensive linemen to block out the world of curricular reforms, market demands and parental expectations. Each is a running back about to meet head-on with one defender. He’s is a giant: Herodotus, maybe, or Marx. Behind him is another. Getting tackled will hurt. In that space, the back can go left, right or right through him. The structure of the game frees him for that human interaction.

To continue the metaphor, the worried senior year is a game at recess. There are only few rules, and you fight about them. No one has passing routes; everyone just sort of runs around, doing his own thing, trying to get open. It’s an easier game to learn, and it’s boring to watch. In a few weeks, we’re all playing kickball.

We’ve no real curricular requirements, we’re not forced into anything, and so every choice must be strategic.

Everyone knows the freshman who “wants to major in history, but I’m not sure what I can do with that, so I think I’ll double in econ,” as if real life is a problem set solvable if only you apply axes and isolate the variable. Never mind the virtues of economics. The point is that we are forced into strategy.

Liberal education persists for a reason: We believe that for it is good to spend a few years thinking about ideas. An order of women and men have vowed to live lives adding to knowledge; in hopes that some of it will rub off, we send them our 18-to-22-year-olds.

A gross simplification? Absolutely.

The overwhelming majority of collegiate education is vocational in a real way: how to administer a blood test, not “strong analytic and communicative skills.” We lucky few daughters and sons of Eli can use the few structures we have that keep out the “real world.” The Yale Bubble, so called, is a start.

The very real material structure of these pages, even “radically redesigned,” allows us to communicate in a way not commercially beneficial or even particularly relevant.

We need the walls. Otherwise the real world floods in. I’m sorry that I walked out of your class, professor Tarabout. I wish I had a choice. But I got carried away on the chaotic waters of shopping period.

I was just following the rules.

Michael Pomeranz is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at michael.pomeranz@yale.edu 

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