Elite universities are often criticized for their unfriendly atmospheres. The New York Times recently published an article called “The Kindly Ones.” The article, by Ross Douthat, is a collection of observations and discussions about an alleged culture of kindness that exists at Harvard. He accuses Harvard students of being “friendly and deferential on the surface, boiling with resume-driven competitiveness underneath.”
In the article, professors bemoan the fact that students have an unspoken agreement to refrain from contradicting each other in an effort to make everyone look good. About 20 minutes after reading this, I raised my hand for the first time in my political philosophy section. After I spoke, the girl next to me raised her hand and told the class my comment was all wrong. Well, I thought, at least we’re not like Harvard.
The culture described in the New York Times article seems to be the exact opposite of the culture at Yale. On the surface students are competitive and driven, but underneath they are genuinely friendly.
Yale does have a competitive atmosphere. In fact, it has shocked me how talented my peers are. When I visited the campus in January, someone told me everyone at Yale is Googleable. With this fact in mind (and this is not one of my prouder moments) I took suitemate stalking to a whole new level. As I put each of their names into Google, I became progressively more amazed. Diana was a debate champion. Maddy was on the junior national crew team. Two others were National Merit finalists. I remember calling out to my dad, “All these people are so much more interesting than me!”
I have been equally impressed in class. All of a sudden, I am the kid who does not know the answer. I tried to perfect a skilled avoidance of eye contact during question time. Generally, the professor still calls on me, and all I gain is a newfound sympathy for that kid in high school who never quite knew the answer.
I thought I was prepared for my mock trial tryout until I showed up and plenty of people had their statements memorized even though memorization was optional. I thought I was motivated to get my work done until someone at our fireside chat announced that the previous night she had pulled an all-nighter. When asked how it went, she told us she would be doing it again for the second night in a row.
Yale students are motivated by a desire to better oneself, and they’re competitive because of the natural talent common across the campus. There is no boiling drive to overtake fellow students underneath the competitive exterior. “I’ve never experienced a situation where someone is trying to get me,” said Davenport senior Peter Jasinski. He said that even on problem sets with steep curves, students are willing to help each other out.
Peter Karalekas, a freshman in Davenport, had a similar experience. When reflecting on his Math 120 class, he said, “People aren’t trying to make their own elite study groups; they’re all working together.”
When I was sick and confused by my economics problem set, I went down to a friend’s room for help. He gave me a bottle of water and helped me through the answers as I hopelessly coughed on his bed.
Sometimes the competition at Yale is intense. Both academics and extracurricular activities are difficult in an environment loaded with overachieving, determined people. Although the competition can be tough, beneath the surface students are generally willing to help each other out. So unlike the Harvard students described in the New York Times article, we are the kindly ones — but, here, we’re not faking it. Probably it’s just because we’re better people.
Monica Disare is a freshman in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.