GRAVER: Lucretius at Yale

On its website, the Yale Admissions Department promises “education and enlightenment” along with a commitment “to the idea of a liberal arts education.” When a Yale student can receive a degree with a humanities experience consisting only of “Vikings” and “The Beatles, Dylan and the 60s,” what Yale claims to offer is actually a choice instead of a guarantee.

To be clear, I have nothing against the two courses. I have heard fantastic things and very well may attempt to take both. However, I doubt that “enlightenment” can come from such a scant (if any) introduction to Western foundational ideas and thinkers.

One may point out that this is simply the fault of the student. If a student does not choose to take full account of Yale’s resources, it is his own fault. Furthermore, who cares? A student’s education is his or her own choice.

Yale lets students make that choice without much guidance. Distributional requirements are broad and largely undefined so students can “expand on individual interests, explore new curiosities, and take academic risks.” The proliferation of choice and the restraint of mandates are both well in accordance with Yale’s goal of academic freedom. However, this near-unrestrained freedom is an onerous and stunting burden on the student body.

More important than the immense power given to the individual student is the idea that students deserve such power. The very nature of this absolute commitment to choice is not simply a rejection of institutional authority; it is a surrender on the part of the institution. It is impossible to respect or revere the wisdoms, values and traits of an institution — especially one as grounded in our national history as Yale — when it presents itself as a mutable entity to be uniquely designed in each iteration.

Further down on its website, the Admissions Department pledges that a Yale education “instills in its students the values” that will (along with other traits) lead to “successful and meaningful lives.” But with such structural latitude bestowed upon students, this process lacks any definitive formula or objective trait.

Truly, at what point does instillation of values occur? Certainly, Yale does not explicitly inculcate its students with expounded morals. We have heard countless times about Yale’s individuality, acceptance, multiculturalism and the like. Tolerance is considered the highest virtue because of the very fact that it does not define virtue.

These potentially instilled values are not instruments of any moral discernment. They simply mean a strong belief or opinion held by the student. However, there is a troublesome and cyclical nature to this pedagogy.

If the purpose of an education is to instill a student with values, but a student is free to choose his course of study based on whatever values, beliefs, understandings he has beforehand, education becomes at best insular self-empowerment and at worst self-indulgence.

Yale defines a liberal arts education as one “literally liberating and freeing the mind to its fullest potential.” With this understanding, education is not a guide, but an infinite number of arenas with no two exactly alike and with none better or worse than any other. But from what really are we liberating them?

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Lucretius composed a rather lengthy letter to his friend Memmius entitled De Rerum Natura. Lucretius said the purpose of education is to unbind students from “delusions” — social norms or religious precepts that weigh upon individuals. These delusions are lofty, abstract social constructions ultimately conjured up and meaningless.

With his highest goal being self-defined personal pleasure, Lucretius, although largely forgotten from our curricula, matches our school’s educational philosophy. Fundamentally, Yale subtly leads us to be satisfied and concerned only with the mortal world.

Inextricably linked to the cult of individuality is an embrace of a quasi-academic agnosticism. When one is given the tools almost exclusively to deconstruct, he is without the ability to develop and maintain values. More importantly, having never encountered intellectual institutional authority, one lacks the disposition to accept and defer to societal precepts.

The social sciences cultivate a moral metric defined by statistics (median income, social mobility, etc.) rather than any transcendent metric. In matters of political philosophy, moral foundations are solely grounded in the reason of man, and invocations of God are treated as intellectual foils rather than potential truths.

This is not to say Yale must propagandize. But, in the spirit of a true liberal arts education, it must take a more active and good faith effort to expose students to crucial tenets of humanistic thought. Yale would benefit greatly from true requisites, mainly ancient and modern political philosophy along with a theological, nonsecular history of Western religious tradition.

It is the duty of an institutional authority to represent a moral compass, even if students ignore or disagreed with it. Instead of asking, “What would you like to learn?” a university should turn to its students and say, “You’re not even old enough to buy a beer — what do you really know?”

Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at


  • Frashizzle

    But what if a student doesn’t want to be brainwashed with the ‘western canon’ (whatever that even means)? What if the student wants to OPEN his mind, rather than clog it with the same propagandized version of Western Ideals that people like you have come to think of as essential? Furthermore, what if a student wants to focus on subjects that MATTER outside of the baseless tenants of our society that we’ve come to worship without reason?

    • CrazyBus


      There are so many things wrong with this article that I don’t even know where to start. If you truly feel lost, go talk to your Master or Dean, or froco, or any upperclassmen. I feel like I’m being trolled….

  • River_Tam

    Frankly, as a conservative, I’d prefer that my university NOT try to “instill values” in me, because I know exactly what kind of values Richard Levin and Peter Salovey and Mary Miller think are important. I was told in DS that the point of Sodom and Gamorrah was not about sin and inpenitence, but about inhospitality. Paradise Lost was taken as an exultation of free-thinking and independent thought. People will see in the Western Canon that which they want to see.

    I know everyone else’s values. They suck.

  • jorge_julio

    just because graver is for a “definitive formula” and “objective trait” doesn’t mean he has to rehash the same stupid column over and over again. come up with something else to say!

  • The Anti-Yale

    “It is the duty of an institutional authority to represent a moral compass, . . .”

    Let’s give Yale credit; It DOES represent a moral compass: Swenson doesn’t practice instant grab and run daily digital investment ; the university tries not to discriminate against race, gender, sexual preference, disability; the administration doesn’t suppress dissent or intellectual freedom.

    Turn the Yale “Y” upside down and it is a divining rod.

  • Jason_GL

    “Inextricably linked to the cult of individuality is an embrace of a quasi-academic agnosticism. When one is given the tools almost exclusively to deconstruct, he is without the ability to develop and maintain values.”

    Fair enough, but what would it even mean to have a theist academy in the 21st century? For at least the last 150 years, universities have used logic and empirical observation as the touchstones of public truth. What universities strive to teach is how to use a neutral, publicly accessible process to collect evidence, weigh its credibility and importance, and draw sound conclusions. More recently, the postmodern movement has tried to show students how to trace the influence of social norms and powerful individuals on the language we use, in the hope that recognizing these influences will help us think and speak more clearly about what we see in the world. These are valuable skills.

    None of these options are useful to an authoritarian theologian. For such a theologian, weighing the credibility of evidence is unnecessary; the facts are supernaturally revealed. Following the logic of an argument is unnecessary; the truth may be permanently mysterious. Tracing the influence of power on language is unnecessary; the church’s teachings are wise and trustworthy by definition.

    So if you did build an academy around your worldview — and I hope to God that you do not twist Yale to such a narrow end — what would it teach? What would it research? What business would it have beyond the cataloging and repetition of fixed creeds?

    Meanwhile, Yale funds, hosts, and promotes a slew of worship, public service, and religious learning activities in almost every conceivable denomination. Attendance is limited not by the number of chairs or clergy, but by the level of student interest. Yale can do no more without abandoning its commitment to freedom of conscience. To require students to attend religious classes that do not interest them is, emphatically, to “propagandize.”

  • bcrosby

    The notion that there is a singular “Western religious tradition” which could provide both the methodology and the material for “theological, nonsecular” study is total nonsense. I assume Graver means Christianity when he talks about the “Western religious tradition” – a religion which, it bears repeating, finds its founding figure in a Middle Eastern colonial backwater. But even granting that (which, frankly, one should not – what about Judaism, or various pagan traditions, or Islam? Are not they also part of the “Western religious tradition”?), the Christian tradition is hardly unitary. Roman Catholics narrate (and theologize about) church history rather differently than, say, restorationist Protestants or, for the that matter, the Orthodox. And of course, as any student of religious history knows, contained under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism (…or Lutheranism, or Calvinism, etc., etc., etc.,) are also an incredible plurality of theological approaches and views. Suffice it to say that Gustavo Gutierrez approaches history and church rather differently than Thomas Aquinas — and Aquinas approaches both of those very differently from Jansen or Benedict. Which of these many competing strands of the so-called “Western religious tradition” would Graver pick? This is pure silliness.