If you want to hear angry groans from either side of the Yale Political Union, just stop halfway through a speech and tell the body that the topic at hand is really “a question for social science.”
Politics and academics can be a bit awkward around each other.
Strictly speaking, they have nothing in common. As German theorist Carl Schmitt noted, political ideology is largely reducible to a clash between us and them, self and other, Democratic “ideals” and Republican “principles.” There’s plenty to debate about deficit spending, energy policy and the labor movement, but you often won’t find it in political discourse.
When you take the politics out of politics, you end up reading Facebook political views like “liberal Democrat with neoconservative leanings.” Sure, there’s space within any ideology or public sphere to reflect and invent. But sometimes, it just sounds silly.
The converse — the politicization of academics — is too much of a fringe movement to merit political attention itself. Just apply the word “critical” to whatever you study, and you’ve immediately outcasted yourself as a postmodernist, with few friends. (Take it from me.)
The problem today is that the schools with lots of money and firepower are precisely those whose resources are being diverted to less political things, like hard sciences. However gradual the trend, the mechanization of the university begets scholastic offspring more open to seeing knowledge as merely a good in itself — if also a means of personal power, whose ultimate end is to live a comfortable, upper-middle-class life. This is the message of David Brooks’ famous analysis of Princeton’s “Organization Kids.” As “non-profit” universities increasingly profit from federally funded biotechnology research — not to mention casualizing their workforces — the specter of Organization Intellectuals is ascendant.
Don’t get me wrong; I love philosophical prattle, scientific research and career-planning as much as the next guy, and I think surrealist art is cool because, well, it is.
But Yale plays by different rules.
At Yale, the noble quest is not simply discovering what you enjoy and becoming good at it — though that is why I chose Yale. With (too) many fascinating courses and fun activities, it’s hard not to become a panophile, if not a polymath.
Instead, our mission as students should be to develop an image of what we want the world to look like — as Richard Rorty calls it, a vocabulary of social hope. Thanks to our sort-of meritocracy, we’ve landed in as powerful a position as anyone else our age, anywhere. We are first in line to think and to act. If we don’t, the world has us to blame for its solvable problems.
Thus at Yale, the personal — and the academic — is always political. With the possession of power and privilege comes the onus, however welcome and deserved, that your ideas, choices and way of life may have an impact on whole groups of people.
The point is not to study and spend time doing only “practical” stuff. This sort of rhetoric is as sterile and misdirected as Stalinist realism is soulless. Nor should social science, experimental theater and days of service be conceived as purely utilitarian political tools, lest they lose their utility.
Rather, coming here demands recognizing — and forging — connections between our spiritual and political values and the world.
Maybe it’s just a senior thing. With the ocean in full view from the peak of the ivory tower, it’s easy to imagine the self soon to be standing distantly below. But privilege need not be reflected in a degree or full-time job to affect the decisions of those who have it —
And so with great power ideally also comes great humility. The lesson of visionary yet imperialist urban planning is that, on top of enrolling in Cynthia Horan’s “Big City Politics,” we should scope out what it’s actually like to live in our small but significant city. In many, perhaps most cases, we’ll find that the best way to take the lead is to pass it off to those on the ground.
All the same, it’s the motivation to be visionary that comes first. Ignoring your inner politician — whether a technocrat or a rabble-rouser, an inventive lifesaver or an agent of mainstream American politics — means wasting a Yale education. Like me, you may not have chosen Yale with this in mind. But the future didn’t ask and doesn’t care.