Klein: The greats and me

An elite cadre of withered, wizened greats walks among us here at Yale. Few have access to them, and most have never even met them. Their undergraduate classes? Few and far between. Their seminars? By 1000-word application only. Yet, their collegiate repute is unparalleled. Chipper, over-qualified graduate students climb over one another to research minutiae, and recommendation-letter-courting undergrads jostle to the front of lecture halls in desperate search of small talk.

These are the celeb-professors, the bespectacled Mick Jaggers of the academic world, scholar-superstars standing proudly atop the ivory tower. Their papers are fly; their number of citations, off the hook. They appear in more journals than the Oxford comma. When they present at academic conferences, women gasp and scream. Even scathing peer-reviews can barely ruffle the feathers of these giants, these itinerant-yet-Yale-bound wise men (yes, they are mostly men.) Most enjoy life tenure and thus — like Supreme Court justices — are responsible to practically no one. They are unaccountable, unapologetic geniuses, riding the wave of their own brilliance to plaudits, speaking invitations, honorary degrees and, soon enough, the grave.

But in recent years, these big shots have received some considerable flak. Criticisms abound that these stoic, distant Yale-yogis are academic misers, unwilling to share their gifts with more than a tiny portion of the University. Many of us are surprised by how little access to these big names Yale is willing to grant us. These professors are far more publicized than they are utilized.

But this seems merely a case of aggressive marketing, one for which Yale, not the curmudgeonly professorial hermit, is responsible — one that even seems reasonable, given the competitive circumstances. Big names sell schools. Classes like “Grand Strategies” pique many a megalomaniacal Yalie’s interest. Even at 79, Harold Bloom is a hot commodity; we should not expect him to throw daily mixers. The celeb-professors’ inaccessibility is unfortunate, but not, I think, malicious.

But there exists a second, more stinging criticism, and it is directly tied to how these great thinkers continue to regurgitate the academic philosophies that made them great in the first place. Many complain that these professors’ classes are wholly focused on their own work, thoughts or opinions; their authored books are assigned reading and alternative theories are often brushed aside. “Life” becomes Shelly Kagan’s personal amalgamation of his most beloved philosophical maxims. The “Cold War” lecture progresses via a series of John Gaddis-produced documentaries, forwarding the historian’s token understanding of the conflict. “Ethics and International Affairs” is, without a doubt, the world according to Thomas Pogge. Harold Bloom —the romantic, aesthetic anti-historicist (a mouthful) — is always right. Charles Hill’s Thucydidean realism makes grown men cry. In short, many of Yale’s great thinkers are less teachers than they are preachers, spreading their trademark gospel, inculcating us with the distinctive worldview that first earned them fame.

But in many ways, I see this as less a weakness of our professors and our school than a profoundly creative and individualizing strength. I fall on the side of these acutely self-aware academic clerics. It is their uniqueness, even eccentricity — their deeply personal incarnations of the material they study — that makes our university distinctive. If our professors only taught standardized, wholly neutral material, we would end up a painfully boring intellectual community. I have no problem with being influenced and swayed by these partisan gurus; I chose Yale, and am here for a “Yale” education, with all the trimmings. At the Lyceum, one expects a hefty dose of Aristotle. The Yale-educated thinker must be different, with a mind that has mixed professorial preaching with individual intellectual exploration.

In the end, we should recognize that we are an inimitable group of thinkers, not just teachers and learners. The fact that our preeminent thinkers fall into camps of their own creation does not mean that we are any less lucky to have them; it means that when we sit in lecture, we absorb impassioned, personal thoughts, rather than standardized, aloof ones. Neutrality is dull and confining. Let’s attempt to transcend the standard, to connect personally to our studies, as our celeb-professors have done. While we may find other Cold War theories scoffed at or hear slam poetry and Foucalt savaged in many a Bloom-diatribe, in the end, these men carry with them the weight of a life spent in ardent, individual study, and the proselytizing desire to impart their own personal truth. Yale is a great institution by facet of thinkers like these: uncompromising, biased, book-hawking, but without a doubt, inspiring. Without them, we’re any other university. With them, we are intellectually unique. I’m a celeb-professor groupie — and not ashamed to admit it.

Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.

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