Bagg: Learn humility from Yale

The French have a proverb: To know all is to forgive all.

It may seem extreme to claim that greater understanding will always lead to forgiveness, but I think there’s a lot of truth to that notion. The better we are able to adopt the perspectives of others, the more we will be able to identify with them, and the less likely we will be to blame or judge them. This lesson extends from the personal level, where greater sympathetic understanding might lead you to forgive your friend her habitual lateness, to the political level, where respect of your opponent can facilitate innovation and success.

The trick is to understand what forgiveness means. In a personal sense, that does not mean completely ridding yourself of the conception, for example, that lateness is disrespectful, but divorcing that abstract judgment from its manifestations in various real people. Address your concerns with your friend, and explain things from your own perspective as well as you can, but don’t take the behavior as a sign of your friend’s lack of devotion or character; rather understand that old habits die hard. Lose your anger, not your principles.

In a political sense, forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean changing your own position on anything; it means understanding the reasons your opponent disagrees with you and respecting him for them. It means allowing him the freedom to speak and treating his objections as informed by serious concerns rather than malicious desires. In the end, you’ll be more effective that way.

Those of us who know liberals probably understand that, contrary to right-wing rhetoric, they don’t all hate America; conversely, those of us who know conservatives understand that neither do they hate poor people, as many of the “America-haters” themselves would claim.

In many ways, Yale is a fantastic place for developing the kind of worldview I’ve described — one that is open, understanding and respectful. On the personal level, it challenges us as much as any institution to befriend those with differing perspectives — through the residential colleges, the senior societies and the countless forums for public discussion. We have a lively civil society here, represented in no small part by this very page.

As an academic institution, Yale challenges us always to search for greater truth and understanding of the world around us. After all, the only thing academics can generally agree on is that, “It’s more complicated than we thought.” But, snark aside, this is indicative of a willingness to accept the complexities of life rather than glossing over them in an attempt to make the world cohere to pre-conceived standards. We are constantly taught to examine our assumptions, rethink our beliefs and take on different perspectives.

At the same time, Yale can also be a breeding ground for the kind of arrogance that runs roughshod over such respect and understanding. We are constantly told that we deserve the privileges afforded to us — from beautiful classrooms to Master’s Teas and Mellon Forums. More specifically, we’re told — both explicitly and implicitly — that our opinions are important, that our voices deserve to be heard and that we should do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. We made it here; that must mean we’re better than everyone else. At Yale, we are rewarded for being bold and confident, not unassuming and careful.

This attitude — though valuable in some contexts— has a tendency to lead to a kind of pride and overconfidence that contradicts the values of respect and understanding that other parts of Yale attempt to cultivate. The fundamental challenge of enrolling at Yale, then, is to separate its good lessons from the bad; to take from it a sense of humility in the face of the grand achievements and diverse student body we see before us, instead of developing a sense of superiority over the rest of the world simply for partaking in Yale’s vast splendor.

The real moral of the French proverb is humility, for no one can presume to really know all. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned from my four years at Yale, it’s how little I truly know.

Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.

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