Elihu Yale made his fortune as an employee of the British East India Company. That much you’ll find on Yale’s Web site. Somewhat less publicized, however, is his firing, for corruption and misuse of power, in 1691. It appears that in his capacity as governor of Fort St. George, Elihu carried the fortune-seeking ethos of his era a little too far.
During five short and lucrative years, Elihu Yale aggressively used company funds to amass a private fortune. And with his ill-gotten gains he funded a fledgling American university, which adopted his name as its own.
But that’s how the world always goes: Colleges, cultures and customs are not static institutions and rigid codes, but the causes and results of people and their actions. Three hundred years ago an individual acted greedily, then generously, and left a mark on the world.
I would like to leave a mark, a good one, on the world. It seems the way to do that is by changing contexts, the formal regulations and informal cultures that structure our lives.
Contexts matter so much because we let them mold us. At least, I have let them mold me. Looking back on my four years here, I must conclude that I’ve made remarkably few conscious decisions.
I chose to major in computer science. I chose to join the Yale Political Union. I chose to ask a few people out on dates, and to plan a few events. But most of my time and energy has been spent on habits and reactions, homework and idle discussion.
The few decisions I did make were about which contexts to enter. Their cultures, energy and values did the rest.
To shape the world we need to shape cultures and institutions. These thing are, of course, in large part beyond our control. But we can nudge the world around us at least a little.
I have been inspired by the New Haven Progressives. In 1900, the U.S. gross domestic product had been growing at almost 7 percent per year for a decade, New Haven tax receipts had tripled, and there was little debt. Then tuberculosis, deadly and contagious, erupted among New Haven’s slum-dwelling immigrants, who comprised over a quarter of the population.
The result was stunning: Middle-class locals, with free time and financial means, clamored for public health campaigns, better working conditions for laborers, and general public-mindedness. Whole families attended the lecture “What Constitutes a Good Water Supply?” at the Sheffield Scientific School.
That event was part of a series organized by Professor Henry Farnam 1874. You may recognize his name — his father built Farnam Hall on Old Campus. His lecture series cost $1 for a season’s pass, and covered not only pressing issues of the day, but also general-interest topics, including “Forest Problems” and “Is English becoming Corrupt?”
The Progressives were drawn into the public sphere because there were pressing problems they had the means to address. But once there, they became generally engaged. With this broad public-spiritedness came a new ideology. Their message was, “Life gains in proportion as it is responsive and sympathetic.” That quote, incidentally, is from a Progressive book titled “The World Beautiful,” whence this column’s name.
One thing the Progressives had going for them was the nature of their challenges. Tuberculosis was a local menace with a local solution: hygienic living. The new Anti-Tuberculosis Association, with Farnam as recording secretary, raised funds for a consumptive sanatorium. A local preacher mobilized support for new public bathhouses. Yale began a major in sanitary engineering, whose first class (graduating in 1901) comprised 11 percent of the undergraduate student body.
So for Farnam and his peers, societal context — public health problems, money to spare and an uplifting ideology — defined the tenor of their personal projects and philosophical outlooks. And they created institutions to nurture their Progressive culture.
But individual decisions can only do so much. Around 1906, the New Haven economy tanked. The city was soon in debt, the Anti-Tuberculosis Association ran out of funds, and the public ethos crumbled. New Haven’s most egalitarian congregation dissolved for lack of an affordable meeting place. Individuals could only do so much when the context was stacked against them.
I worry that the context today is similarly stacked against us. The world is choking on debt, leaving few resources for the common good. And unlike tuberculosis, the challenges we now face — economic instability, the threat of terrorism, climate change — are not local problems with local solutions. Our world does not reward engagement quickly.
Yet if any people have the power to change contexts for the better, we do. Thanks to Elihu Yale and 100 others, we have been molded into highly educated elites. We have the tools — academic theories and extracurricular experiences — to understand structural contexts, and some day we will have the means — financial like Elihu Yale, or cultural like Farnam — to act on our understandings.
Let’s bear this in mind as we go out into the world, so the marks we leave behind will make the world beautiful.
Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.