KOLB: We need the big questions

Two springs ago, one of the last things keeping me from choosing Yale was the fear that I might not get into Directed Studies. I knew Columbia, my other option, had a classics-heavy mandatory core curriculum, and that not everyone who applied to DS got in. I tried to leverage my matriculation at Yale into a spot in DS, but I ultimately had to apply and cross my fingers.

As it turned out, I got in. That summer, as I shopped for Plato online, I found a book by DS professor Tony Kronman called “Education’s End,” which I think really got at what made DS look so exciting to me. The premise of the book was that the pervading ethic in the humanities of putting research first is preventing the humanities from doing what they’re supposed to do — namely, giving students an encounter with life’s biggest questions, with DS as the paradigmatic example of this true education. I knew without a doubt that this was what I wanted to get out of my first year at Yale.

Now, DS was amazing, and I could say many good things about it. There were certainly a lot of big questions bouncing around in my head during it, questions that spilled into after-class discussions. But at its core, DS is a course about understanding texts rather than pursuing questions. There was always more reading, processing and analyzing than there was pondering. The questioning itself, though deep, was never deeply personal, was never pointed at me.

I think this is a problem. I don’t think it’s a problem with DS, or with any one class. I think it’s a problem with the way Yale sees our development as students.

We all know that Yale is a place where things get very academic, very fast. We, along with most departments, expect our professors to be brilliant rather than wise, and even the wise ones we usually don’t want to discuss our lives with. Our president is praised for taking care of infrastructure and the endowment, which he’s done a great job of, but isn’t looked to as a guide for the heart of the university.

Our humanities classes are first and foremost about analysis. A small case in point: My brother, who just graduated from Georgetown, took a class there called “The Problem of Evil,” where students wrestled with questions about God, justice and the radical evil in our world. I sought a similar class here at Yale, and what I got was a class much more centered on the meanings of particular texts, whose point of departure was most often philosophical rather than experiential. It was still a great class, but it didn’t engage the things I had hoped it would.

I love analyzing texts. That’s why I’m a philosophy major. But we’ve got to wonder what an education is when our school tells us that, beyond our major, what we need to become flourishing human beings is two humanities classes, two science classes, two social science classes and “skills requirements.” The absence of any mention of personal development on this list is noteworthy, and should give us pause.

But maybe Yale never meant to make us flourish, only to make us into brilliant scholars, successful careerists and hopefully, world changers. Our freshman orientation presents us with a series of lessons that do an admirable job of trying to prepare us, but in a way that mostly stays at the level of damage control, rather than discussing what life at Yale should look like. We have any number of peer counselors and liasons available, but they‘re only students. We have mental health counselors, many of whom do really great work to keep us healthy, but somehow all this has become detached from what we’re supposed to be learning at Yale, from what our classes are supposed to be about. Are our classes just jobs, or can they be real places of nurture for us as people?

Some people say there’s no room for big questions in the liberal arts education because of secularization or political correctness. Regardless of whether Yale asks these questions, though, we’ve got to. It’s time we bring these kinds of questions to the forefront, not just in “student life,” but in everything it means to be a Yalie. The big questions of life, about meaning, about God, about justice, aren’t going to go away, here or down the road. We’ve got to ask them. We’ve got to, because we’re worth it.

Brendan Kolb s a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at brendan.kolb@yale.edu.

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