As I sat in my final class as a Yale undergrad last Thursday, I had one of my increasingly frequent epiphanies of terror: I am done with my education. Everything I had learned and forgotten over the years — the Code of Hammurabi, basic long division, French — was culminating in a singular moment, a final 75 minutes of teaching before I would be jettisoned into the vast and lonesome yaw of the real world.
The class was “History of Life,” a truly rewarding course about science and fossils for students who don’t know stuff about science or fossils. But even though I like the class, its final meeting put a lot of pressure on me. It was, after all, the last time a professional educator would be contractually obligated to say smart things aloud for my benefit.
What would I do? I had so much learning to catch up on, so much to try to remember! Why did Aquinas dig Aristotle so much? What are the basic arguments for God’s existence? What was all the fighting in World War I about? Did Aquinas really dig Aristotle? Am I simplifying to trick myself into thinking I know more than I actually know?
Somehow, these questions went unanswered. Instead, the lecture dealt mainly with the evolution of humans, their invention of spears and the subsequent extinction of interesting wildlife in North America.
But I did learn some useful things in my final class. For example, autumn. Did you know autumn wasn’t always a thing? Seasonal rotation is only a few million years old. Similarly, if you stumble upon some human skeletons, and you’re curious as to whether they’re male or female, you can check their brows. Male skulls have more prominent brows.
There you have it. This isn’t to sell my final Yale class short; it was a very interesting end to a very interesting course. But it’s strange to have it over with. School, frankly, is the main thing I’ve been good at most of my life. Sure, I’m tall and was able to deceive people into thinking I was good at basketball for a little while. But school — that logical system of expectations in which you perform task X to achieve result Y — was always my thing, as I imagine it was yours, too.
So, what do we do now?
Well, maybe there’s an answer. As I began writing this in LC 101, I was interrupted by the final meeting of ASTR 120: “Galaxies and the Universe.” The lecture was about dark energy. Now, if you’re not an astrophysicist, here’s some good news: You know about as much about dark energy as most astrophysicists do. Basically, the universe’s curvature suggests that there’s a certain amount of energy and matter in existence. The stuff we can see accounts for about a quarter of the stuff in the universe. The rest … that’s dark energy, whatever that is. And that’s only one of many major things about which astrophysicists simply don’t have a clue.
I’ll level with you: My concern for the ultimate nature of dark energy is average at best. But the fact that professional astrophysicists are wrestling with this problem, about which they know next to nothing, gives me hope.
We don’t need to come out of Yale knowing everything. What we need is an urge to explore, to figure out what makes us come alive, and to abandon the linear thinking that school has given us.
This message may sound a little hokey. There is hard work to be done in the world, I tell myself, and it’s our responsibility to do it, regardless of whether it makes us “come alive” inside.
But when I think of the opportunities I’ve been given and the lessons I’ve been privileged to learn — from long division to dark energy — I still believe we can figure out how to do good in the world without giving up on ourselves. Everyone at Yale is extraordinary; we all have something to offer. Our goal shouldn’t be to compete with each other, but discover how to give something back in our own way. Classes may be over. But as we figure out how to give something back, our educations have just begun.
River Clegg is a senior in Davenport College. This is his final staff column for the News.