Hirst: Questions worth asking

Commentary

Early one morning last week I stepped out of Branford entryway D and walked through the college courtyard Robert Frost purportedly described as the most beautiful in America. I saw the grass covered with a thick coating of snow; the flakes which hadn’t yet landed, rested atop the Gothic architecture and the tree limbs bare of leaves.

I was not alone. A tour of (native) Chinese men and women were stopped outside my master’s house. The guide spoke as most of them snapped pictures of archways and benches and gates. They didn’t see Linonia courtyard late on a Saturday evening, when beer cans and cigarettes litter the ground. They saw our University, where students spend four years engaging with the best that has been thought and said in a country comprised of wonders.

Half a world away, in the heart of a city, in the shadow of an Iran on the path to nuclear weapons, within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, buttressed by a booming economy, the snow is swapped for sand, Gothic architecture for Jerusalem stone, polo-wearing New Englanders for sandal-clad sabras. But it is still presumed that thinking great thoughts and understanding man’s place in history, escaping the merely technical in favor of the truly philosophical serves a higher purpose: maintaining a free society.

Or, at least, Michael Oren thinks so. The Columbia- and Princeton-educated Israeli ambassador to the United States is trying to replicate liberal arts education in his home country. Just as Yale was founded to cultivate a student body with knowledge of great societies past and an ability to lead them in the future, Oren and his think-tank compatriots at the Shalem Center are looking to create Shalem College — Israel’s first liberal arts college. As trustee Yair Shamir said, “We are building this college, because we are still building this country.”

Shamir seems to recognize an idea long embodied by the American education system: Technical excellence isn’t enough. Successful nations must have a people seeking something beyond transitory gains, a people equipped to articulate their raison d’etre.

America’s China hawks often speak of the dangers that China’s increased military spending and cyberterrorism pose to our security. They warn of the impending danger posed by Chinese weapon systems targeted at American installations and oil deals with dictators. They worry that Chinese economic gains and control of American debt cedes our sovereignty to a rising competitor. But they miss the greatest potential threat of all: A China that can legitimize its oppressive state control in the eyes of its subjects.

But it doesn’t look like this will happen anytime soon. I have long wondered why China has such a close relationship with Yale, a school that encourages us to challenge the established norms, to critically examine our society under the lux and veritas of reason. For all of its people who visit our school, China is not focused on becoming a dominant power through the open exchange of ideas, but instead though rigor and force.

And it shows in the way they educate their children. For the most part, at least early schooling is based on rote memorization. They don’t Google. They don’t Ask Jeeves. In short, they don’t ask.

Ultimately, an education based in the liberal arts highlights those who have asked questions. Socratres created philosophy by talking to his interlocutors. Galileo pulled out a telescope and asked why the earth couldn’t rotate around the sun. In a democracy, we ask why a policy is worthwhile. (Though perhaps, when it comes to health care, we are asking too much.)

Robert Frost, I think, had it wrong. Like the Chinese tourists, he didn’t see the whole picture. He didn’t see a courtyard with muddy footprints. He didn’t see the splotchy patches of grass. And Harkness tower wasn’t covered in scaffolding. But perhaps when he spoke of the courtyard he was also speaking about the university it represented — at its best, a place for students to gather and most of all for them to learn to ask.

Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.

Comments

  • Infiltrate and subvert

    Ask questions, marinate oneself in beauty and invite debate: all liberal arts traditions.

    In addition to Frost, Charles Dickens said Hillhouse Avenue (then vaulted by stately Elms) was the most beautiful street in America. Frank Lloyd Wright said of Harkness Tower, “Id rather line IN it so I wouldn’t have to look AT it.”

    I’m afraid Yale’s interest in China has more to do with power and money than with elevating freedom of thought, artistic beauty and intellectual debate.

    Infiltrate and subvert.

    PK

  • The Contrarian

    I’d much rather live in Harkness Tower than in anything Mr. Wright designed. And after him, it all got much, much worse. Rather than “marinate oneself in beauty” it’s more like “wallow in hideousness”.

  • President’s sore head

    The President’s House at the University of Buffalo was a Frank Lloyd Wright creation until the 1970’s when the man appointed president(whose name escaped me long ago)was a person 6’4″ in height, and the ceilings of the Wright creation cramped his style.

    As I recall, the building was transformed into the registrar’s office in deference to the president’s sore head.

    PK

  • yale10

    Great article Adam! I think you’re asking all the right questions here.

  • Egalitarian

    I agree with almost all of the content of this column, but I do take issue with the way that Hirst portrays the sciences in contrast to the liberal arts. Science and engineering are not about rote memorization and calculation. Science is about discovery and invention, about asking interesting questions of “how” and “why” and seeking answers to them. Creativity and critical thinking are key skills for any good scientist.

  • ktwardock

    This event has been postponed due to anticipated inclement weather. The talk will be rescheduled shortly.