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.

Comments

  • Where is Alyssa?

    “four years of frantic, unthinking, climbing”.

    Perceptive article.

    Look what happened to Alyssa Schvartz when she dared to be different. The debate she spawned should STILL be going on but it has been subsumed (no, gobbled up) by the “frantic, unthinking climbing”.

    Pity.

    PK

  • Yale 09

    Very eloquent, Katie, and well thought-out. It’s a good thing to reflect like this while you’re at Yale. You’ll definitely get more out of the experience that way.

  • adam hirst

    This is great and almost too well-written. I would like to share with everyone an article Katie sent me:
    http://chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308/

    Also, want to have lunch sometime?

  • David

    Thank you for saying what so many are thinking.

  • Pierson ’10

    As someone who consciously chose to abstain from “four years of unthinking climbing,” it’s really not that hard. Just stop being a grade-grubbing, secret society-obsessed, craven careerist networker.

    Other things you could stop being obsessed with: Adam Hirst.

  • the other adam

    this article is correct.

  • Yale ’11

    Bravo! I’ve thought this for a while and I can’t agree with you more. It’s very hard to figure out what you want or who you are in life if you live in “typical Yale” culture that encourages achievement and faux relationships above all.

    Great job Katie

  • The Contrarian

    It’s not easy to resist grim pre-professionalism.

  • SY 10

    It’s not at all surprising to see that Katie Carmody wrote this. She is a beautiful human being and above all supremely thoughtful.

    @5, the obsession (if it exists) goes the other way – and it should. Carmody has written 2 columns this year, both leagues above this year’s staff columnists. The one exception is Shaffer (though he could afford to take himself a bit more seriously.) The rest can be replaced. Bring in people who can actually write and who think about relevant things

  • y11

    You think awfully highly of yourself and our classmates, don’t you? Amusing.

  • asdf

    well said

  • You Know Who

    Adam Hirst, stop mocking KC (and implicitly me?) and WRITE YOUR ARTICLE.

  • Katie Carmody

    Adam, #3, I will have lunch with you when Abolafia has lunch with me (when the Messiah comes).

    Jake, #5, you have responded to me asking for nuanced thinking with “it’s not that hard”. I’m not sure to whom the rest of your comment is directed. If it is to me, I am neither a grade-grubbing, secret society-obsessed, craven careerist networker, nor obsessed with Adam Hirst. We’ve never really talked but I’m sorry you have that impression. If it is to a more general “you”, maybe the student body? Then I wonder when they became obsessed with Adam Hirst, and why.

    #10, I’m not sure exactly what you mean and wish I could ask you directly, but I’ll try my best to respond. In so far as I think highly of human beings and believe that their choices have meaning, I guess I do think highly of myself and our classmates, and all other people who understand that their choices have meaning. In so far as I believe in a liberal arts education, I guess in some ways I do think highly of myself and our classmates, just as I think highly of baseball players (I believe in baseball) and mothers and fathers (I believe that educating and raising children is important) and many other groups of people (though that’s not to say anything about their relative value).

    In any other way, no, not particularly. In the interests of clarity and succinctness, some of my original writing was cut in the process of editing, meaning that some of the humor and qualifying statements were lost. For example, on the heels of “The world will always need successful, Blackberry wielding Elis, the future leaders of America, and many of us will fill those roles,” came, “(Whether or not it needs them, it will always have them.)”So I actually don’t think this column has much to say about how highly I think of myself or our classmates, but I also think that that is okay because it was beside the point.

    And to many others, thanks for reading and commenting.

  • MW ’09

    “Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before the might that has overawed him forever. But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature…By showing him so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much of him.” – The Grand Inquisitor to Christ in “The Brothers Karamazov”

    Let us not think more highly of ourselves than we ought, yet men will only ever rise to what’s expected of them. Bravo on a fine article, three cheers for high-mindedness, ideals, and heroes like you.

  • Hieronymus

    Katie Carmody: I have a (brain) crush on you, and I don’t care who knows it.

  • Hieronymus

    @#3

    The article you reference sheds light, in part, on the effects of a too-liberal culture. Eros crowds out Agape. Young men who might otherwise “bond” in an unshakable, brotherly love, instead may be led (encouraged, eve) by the current milieu to think that they “desire” one another. Eros reigns; Agape, destroyed.

    Mr. Shaffer, sporting his marine corps cover, knows what I mean (PK, however, does not)…

  • PK agrees

    You are correct.I do NOT understand.

    But I DO remember:

    Both eros and agape, UNPROVEN by the passing of time, are forms of impulsiveness and exhilaration.

    Friendship (eros or agape), tested by the passing of years, is closer to what is real than immediate flights of fancy directed toward carnal or cerebral subjects.

    Sorry. But ya gotta get OLD to figure this out.

    Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet or Romeo and Mercutio with wrinkles and folds of flesh engaging in such self-indulgent self-destructive behavior as they do in Shakespeare’s Monument to Impulsivity, R&J?

    Give Time time.

    Until then you have little choice but to live in the room of mirrors and the echo chamber that is youth.

    It’s part of Nature’s plan to get us over the hump to middle age I guess, otherwise we might all just wallow in depression.

    PK