Last Saturday night, Ezra and Maayan announced their engagement. They’re close friends of mine, completing their second and third years of college.
On the first Sunday of break, I spent hours dancing at the wedding of another good friend, a young professor in the Computer Science Department. The room was filled with the energy of a community celebrating as two people started life together.
Yesterday afternoon (like many afternoons), I wandered up to the second floor of the Slifka Center. I was looking for Adina, the precocious two-year-old daughter of members of the rabbinic staff.
On a Friday morning a few weeks ago, I stopped by the doors of a memorial service for Paula Hyman, an iconic Jewish feminist historian. I hovered briefly, listening as members of the Yale faculty and the local community eulogized a fearless trailblazer.
Each of these is an isolated event, but together they tell a story. They are stages in the standard human life. We are familiar with these moments from our home communities. Where we come from, people get engaged, they get married, they have children and they die. But these are also experiences that seem totally removed from life at Yale.
For too many of us, the four years we spend as undergraduates are a wrinkle in time. The average Yale undergraduate finds the thought of a junior-year engagement farcical. And when was the last time most of us attended a funeral, celebrated a birth or spun a small child by the arms?
The absence of these moments reveals something about the way we view our time in college. These years are not part of our lives; they are a holding pattern. At Yale, we exist in a strange Never Never Land with others precisely the same age. Very briefly, we are forever 21.
Here, there are no weddings to celebrate and no deaths to mourn. Aside from the families of masters and deans (and they are some of Yale’s most undervalued treasures), children are absent. Even the adults who touch our lives most are reduced to transient shadows that float in and out of classrooms. Professors are brilliant voices and devastating red pens. They are resources, but only on the rarest of occasions are they people.
In turn, we feel cut off from the natural flow of life. Most of us would never consider getting engaged, because that is something that happens in the real world of old people and small children. And of course, we are not yet in this real world.
But when we decide we have not yet begun our real lives, so much of what Yale offers falls on deaf ears. Can literature, philosophy and the humanities really inspire us if we temporarily bracket ourselves off from the organic lives they examine? What’s more, our decisions here become less significant. We can slack off, sleep late and not put effort into our relationships because it’s not part of real life anyway.
There is also something decidedly selfish about isolating yourself among peers at the height of their physical and mental power while ignoring children and grandparents. We’ll do service projects for the underfed overseas, but only after abandoning the vulnerable in our own families.
College culture is probably a symptom of a larger cultural malaise. Families delegate child care and care for the elderly. Americans are frightened by age and responsibility and would rather pay for nursing homes than take care of their loved ones. But merely recognizing that we are not the source of a problem does not absolve us of the responsibility to fight it.
These college years are bright and unique, but we ignore the rest of life’s trajectory at our own peril. Life is full of milestones and natural cycles that inspire happiness and affirm our highest values. So when you see your dean’s young daughter playing in your courtyard, stop and play with her. Her laughter may be the most important Yale lecture you ever hear.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.