Hirst: Learning to be free

Commentary

Over the past year, I have used this space to argue, esoterically and exoterically, for America to take an active role in promoting the spread of liberalism and freedom abroad. I explicated the strategy and the tactics and argued it was keeping with our best traditions, national interest and moral obligation as prudent revolutionaries. I’ve written as if there are no limits to freedom.

But there are limits. There are times when freedom is not appropriate, when checks — structure — must be in place. I learned this over the course of four years at Yale, which may be the freest place on Earth.

Like Professor Donald Kagan, freedom is a constant presence at Yale. You can do whatever you want. Help Yale grow grass. Teach in a New Haven school. Contemplate the form of the Good. Go for a run down Whalley Avenue at 3 a.m. Drink. Run a political campaign. Study? Drink. Prepare for Sex Week however you crazy kids do that these days. Petition for membership in the Conservative Party.

I guess there are a few things not allowed: I once, along with a few friends, tried to organize a skydiving club at Yale, but was told by the administration that such an activity is unsafe and not eligible for Yale funding. We went skydiving anyway.

Freedom is good, said a recent Yale alum turned commander-in-chief then returned Crawford rancher, and I’m inclined to agree. We are instantly responsible for our own affairs. Our success or failure is on no shoulders save our own. We are autonomous. We participate in those activities we feel passionate about — those interested in theater take classes in the department; those interested in awkward conversation migrate to classes that fill pre-med requirements.

But freedom is not an end in itself. Roland Bainton, the English church historian and Yale graduate, once said that “Yale was Conservative before she was born.” It was founded to combat the liberality that had infected Harvard. Implicit in Yale’s founding was the idea that in education structure is freedom.

But it’s also the reason to take Directed Studies. To be Directed. We should not be allowed decisions until we know of what we speak. So read Aristotle. Read Tolstoy. Read Thucydides. Read — as proof that even Directed Studies is not perfect — Dante’s “Monarchy.” The liberal arts education exists because we think it is good to spend a few years thinking about ideas. Professors vow to add to the collective knowledge of the ages, to study the best that has been written and said.

Graduation signifies a coming of age. We are but transient members of a permanent body. Come May 24, we leave, we strive to climb above and beyond what C.S. Lewis called the “Inner Ring,” to achieve fortune, happiness.

But this striving began at Yale, began before Yale for many of us, and my regrets about Yale are largely ones of wasted talent which, as we know from Robert De Niro in “A Bronx Tale,” is the saddest thing.

I have a few: I wish I had been a Pundit. I would have been a good Pundit — I used bar-mitzvahs as an opportunity to “table top” girls. I wish I had been a theater studies major and the starting center on the varsity basketball team, though I don’t think a 6-foot-1 starting center would have boosted our NCAA tournament prospects. I wish I hadn’t slept through most Friday philosophy lectures. I wish I didn’t stay up all night Thursday writing my papers, though I don’t regret for a moment what I did earlier in the week when I should have been writing.

After four years at Yale, I can safely say that there is no such thing as a typical “Yale Experience.”

With the notable exceptions of attending Toad’s “for the first time,” taking too much lox and shouting too loudly at bagel brunch, mistaking Scroll and Key for the Slifka Center (or was this just a dear friend of mine?), the only common experience we share is the lack of a shared experience.

Just as a people must grapple with the opportunities freedom and democracy present so must all people. For us, that time is now. We will never be freer than we are at this moment. We will never again have less money. We will never again have fewer responsibilities or constraints on our time. We will never again be able to drop more to do less. The hope I have, the hope we must all have, is that I’m able to take advantage of being free.

Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.

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