Newman: More than a responsibility

Peter Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Adding himself to this chorus of the socially conscious, on Saturday, President Levin advised the members of the class of 2014 that “there also come responsibilities” with their new status as “intelligent and reflective members of a community of scholars.”

Most people agree with the basic (though important) sentiment that we should help the less fortunate. It bears repeating here only because of the remarkable disparities both in terms of resources and opportunities in our city. At Yale, students enjoy the nearly unlimited opportunities that the University has to offer — we have an endowment for tulips, after all. Many in New Haven are not guaranteed even the most basic resources. As freshmen seek to define their place in the Yale community and as upperclassmen adjust to their new roles in organizations and on campus, we must be thoughtful about the larger purpose of our academic and social pursuits. The search for knowledge and the climbing of the social ladder lose considerable significance in the absence of a larger social application.

We already know this. Yalies, after all, are considerably active in the community. We know that the story of Yale and the story of New Haven are inextricably tied. Yale cannot exist in a vacuum, and we understand our role as responsible (even if temporary) members of the New Haven community.

Community involvement, though, should be much more complex and rich than a one-way transaction or debt repayment. It should function as a vital component of a complete Yale education that allows us the opportunity to see the world from a more authentic perspective than the safe and cushy seminar room.

No, I am not speaking of the synthetic and calculated filler dumped into the “experiences” section of a resume. I am speaking of the meeting of the theoretical and academic with the experiential. I spent the week before Camp Yale pulling weeds, hauling fire wood and giving more piggy-back rides than was probably healthy at No Place Like Home, a family for disabled children. I did not develop programs or provide administrative support; rather, I connected with happy children and got to understand how they live. It was certainly not the highly intellectual experience typical of Yale, but it was a valuable lesson in submission and empathy that would serve many Yalies well.

In the broadest sense, the truth that we seek during our time here is just as present in the streets and neighborhoods of New Haven as it is in the books we are buying this week or the discussions we are going to have in class this semester. It is present in once-isolated individuals coming together as a community to reduce the prevalence of violence and vandalism in Fair Haven, in refugees starting a new life for themselves in a new and foreign world as part of the IRIS program and in a single woman adopting more than 15 disabled children.

I do not intend to suggest that service should be a compulsory part of one’s time at Yale or that there are specific experiences that one should have before graduation that are missed in the classroom. But for all the valuable perspectives and ideas explored in the cerebral learning of the seminar room, there are complementary and equally meaningful worldviews to be explored outside our Ivy walls.

Yes, we have the responsibility to serve others. But from a purely selfish perspective, there is incredible value in connecting with the other world just around the corner. For all the philosophizing and policy research I did last year in my humanities courses, I never learned that.

Zak Newman is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at zak.newman@yale.edu.

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