Carmody: Questioning the university culture

In “Questions worth asking” (Feb. 24), Adam Hirst ’10 holds up Yale as place where we “learn to ask,” placing us at the apex of a long tradition of liberal arts learning stretching back to Plato’s Academy. As a public school kid from the Midwest, I found Hirst’s column about as necessary to recognize the greatness of a Yale education as Frost’s comment is necessary to see that Branford courtyard is beautiful. Still, I couldn’t help but celebrate our successes with him. I’ve taken Chinese classes in Taiwan, a country that is caught between China and the United States on many fronts, and I’ve discussed cultural attitudes toward education. The prevailing viewpoint is that “Chinese parents and teachers cultivate obedience and memorization, while American parents and teachers encourage independence and creativity.” The liberal arts university is not just an abstract ideal for elites to discuss but an institution with a truly important role in this world.

But beyond the institution and the world, lies something neither leaves much room to consider: the institution and you. Here at Yale, we have our own kind of conformity and our own unasked questions. The University can expose us to new ideas, encourage us to be open-minded in the classroom and foster a culture that encourages us to experiment outside the classroom. But as an institution it can’t be expected reflect on the value of that which it promotes. Questioning these values requires us to look at them not as Yale students, but as a human beings who make moral choices in the world.

Upon matriculating at Yale, we sit at the Freshman Address while President Levin urges us to take up the challenge central to the Western liberal arts tradition: to think about the life we want to lead. Soon after, we learn that the pace of life here is not so suited to thoughtful self-reflection. What’s more, Yale has its own surprisingly narrow understanding of what “the good life” is and what it means to the world — an understanding difficult to challenge on our own terms.

As much as we can credit the University for being diverse, we are here to succeed and have surprisingly homogenous ideas of what success means. Yale breeds a certain kind of student, because that is the kind of student best suited to what we do here. The student is ambitious, articulate, outgoing. Well-dressed, with an eye for networking. He is over-committed but bears it with a grin, still finding the time for trips to the gym and Wednesday night Toad’s. I refer to this student as the “typical Yale student,” however dangerous the term can be, because he exemplifies the characteristics encouraged by the University as an institution and culture.

However appealing you may find this typical Yale student, the application of Yale’s values to your own life deserves nuanced consideration. It is worth asking whether striving to be more like the typical Yale student is really what we should be doing here or all that we should be doing here. And it is worth asking how our desire to be ambitious, over-committed, networked, and stylish skews our college lives in ways that may call for adjustment. In a 1944 speech at King’s College, C.S. Lewis describes a situation which, despite being oceans and decades away, says a lot about the Yale I know. He reminds us, “A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous.” To be sure, the world will always need successful, Blackberry-wielding Elis and many of us will fill those roles. And who can complain if the typical Yale student is articulate, sexy and well-dressed? But in this pursuit, we necessarily make compromises.

A Yale professor and former undergraduate once told me that he wished he had spent less of his time here trying to do “Yale things.” There is always the pressure to have the Yale experience: going abroad to save orphans and experience different cultures, developing close relationships with our professors (the more famous, the better) or getting tapped for the right society even if that requires revealing our stunningly awkward sexual histories. The weight of Yale’s history tells us that if we follow these guidelines, we can’t go wrong. But it also creates a frantic anxiety underlying much of student life here, to network as much as we can network, hook up as often as we can hook up, become involved as deeply as we can be involved. This anxiety is antithetical to self-understanding and reflection on the good life.

We can assert with confidence that the liberal arts university is worth promoting abroad and at home, and if the alternative is rote memorization and a censored Internet, we all know where we stand. But that is not the alternative. The alternative is a better Yale, where we are successful, motivated and brilliant, but because that is what have chosen to be, not because that is where we find ourselves after four years of frantic, unthinking climbing. More importantly, it is a Yale that we love and identify with — but a University that allows us to understand how our four years here shape our lives both at Yale and beyond.

Katie Carmody is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.

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