Hirst: Your democracy lab

Freshmen: Heed Thomas Jefferson’s charge and make your residential college a “laboratory of democracy.” In a country that has built up federal organizations at the expense of state and local institutions, the colleges, isolated within the Yale bubble, retain the vestiges of opportunity and experimentation that once rested with the states.

Think of each residential college as a city, each with its own governmental structure. The college council is its legislative branch, holding the power of the purse and, ultimately, held accountable to the residents of the college; the master’s office is its executive branch, carrying out the measures voted on by the council and maintaining order — the master himself is our chief diplomat and; and the dean’s office is our judicial branch, interpreting the constitution and dispensing justice. Each of these branches serves as a check on each of the other branches.

Like the Spartans, we eat in public barracks, and like New Jersey most of Morse College exists in a state of nature. Ten of the twelve residential colleges are colonial powers — why else to call living space on Old Campus “annex?” Silliman has traditionally been an isolationist power while Timothy Dwight has been described as an “outpost of tyranny.”

And won’t one of you please solve the ongoing Davenport-Pierson Conflict?

Thus, it is entirely sensible to think of your residential college as a polis, for the two have many structural as well as demographic similarities.

But in my time at Yale, I have not seen the same level of experimentation and creativity within the residential college system as has been a part of the rest of the campus. Each semester, a new intellectual or literary journal is started, a sport invented, a leadership institution created, more Yalies become friends with more Middle-Eastern countries, Yale departments offer new classes … and still the residential college operates in the same manner, with similar parties, field trips and structures, and with little of the social engineering one would expect of a campus teeming with budding social socialists.

I should note that such constancy can be rather refreshing in a government. Jefferson warned us to refresh the tree of liberty and I am happy to note this has yet to have been necessary since I arrived on campus. Constancy, not to be confused with regressivism, can allow change to take root, for it is only once a stable regime has been established that we can work to create lasting improvements in our society.

I suppose, then, that my concern for this stability is two-fold. First, the campus in general is a place where one must constantly fear an encounter with a social scientist, and a squirt of Purell will not keep you safe. Are you a smoker? Do you feel tired when studying for exams? Do you like challah? The Psychology department has use for you. Are you interested in education policy? Then you should apply to work as a public school intern. And if you are interested in the political process the possibilities are endless. Why should this same creativity not extend within our living spaces?

Second, the most important critique against social planners in our political discourse is that they are not affected by their policy proposals. As the Senate debates health care, it has been mentioned that the members voting on the legislation will not be affected by the outcome since senators have their own health plan. As America sought to establish the United Nations — The Yale College Council of the international state system — it had trouble as it sought to remain somewhat removed from its jurisdiction. As Ted Kennedy (and others) pushed for desegregation busing back in the 1960s, it was remarked that they would not be affected as their children attended private schools. The point, in short, is that legislation is often judged by those who support it and the legislators relation to the legislation, and important progress has been stymied or halted by a lack of awareness on this point.

The Yale bubble can keep out the “real world” and at the same time prepare us for that same world. One aspect of our school that we have not fully taken advantage of is our residential colleges, where we are all too eager to embrace the calm of the bubble without the opportunities. In our absence the administration has, at times, sought to fill the void — the ad-hoc committee organized to investigate the possibility of gender-neutral housing on campus as one recent example.

Similarly, the expansion of the federal government into the domain of state governments led to the expansion of civil rights for all Americans, an unequivocal good if ever there was one. But along with this came the end, or at least the minimization of our “laboratories of democracy.” Since then, we have struggled to find places to revive this tradition. On a small scale, the residential college system provides an answer.

Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.

Comments

  • Yale ’11

    It is clear you are not involved in the push for gender-neutral housing, for if you were, you would know that students have been campaigning and asking for gender neutral housing for years; it’s the administration that has been stalling. Up until that point in your article, I liked the parallels you were drawing, but that failed comparison is a major one. I would love for freshmen to “heed Thomas Jefferson’s charge” and join the fight for gender-neutral housing, but it’s shameful to imply that current students are not doing so already.

  • Adam L. Hirst

    I think the example of gender neutral housing proves my point and I don’t think you and I would disagree. The ad-hoc committee was created following student pressure. The administration has been stalling. Well, why don’t twenty students who are pushing for gender neutral housing, ten guys and ten girls, trade rooms with each other thereby creating gender neutral housing? Why wait for the administration to get its act together?