LEVINE: A more intellectual Yale

We’ve been seduced: by a 6.8 percent acceptance rate, by the extracurricular bazaar and by the career fair. Most of all, we’ve been seduced by Tony Blair and Stanley McChrystal. We’ve been convinced, whether we ever think of ourselves in these terms or not, that we are, to use a phrase once employed to describe my high school, the “joyful elite;” that we are engaged, that we are passionate and that we are on our way to careers of real worth and standing.

We’ve been seduced — and we’ve been silenced.

Yesterday afternoon, Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in the Political Science Department, spoke to a seminar-sized group of students about what he terms “the corporatization of Yale.”

In Sleeper’s account, the University, in pursuing legitimate ends such as global engagement and fundraising, has been caught in a tide overwhelming all academia. Yale has been carried away from the values that undergird its educational mission, towards a model of opaque authority that treats students as customers.

While Sleeper’s critique focuses on the Yale administration, he contends that corporatization has also crept into the student body. Students ingratiate themselves to authority figures and take care not to jeopardize their eventual senatorial prospects. But the confusion about the purpose of the University runs deeper: Too often, we at Yale forget that we came here because we are intellectual omnivores.

We prioritize the extracurricular over the curricular. We are overwhelmed as freshmen by the number of organizations in Payne Whitney — most genuinely interesting, most of genuine value. Nothing wrong with that: Yale really is one of the few places on Earth where so many smart, motivated people are together in one place.

Yet somewhere between being swept away by the energy of our peers and the feeling of obligation to do great things with our lives, we develop unctuous habits of mind and action. We seek to distinguish ourselves within a narrow conception of professional success, prizing high grades over challenging courses, default subjects of study over those that might truly interest us and e-board meetings over office hours. These habits draw us away from the very reason Yale attracts us in the first place: academic excellence.

In short, we come to feel that what sets us apart from the rest of the world — those who didn’t get in — isn’t our intellectual prowess but what we surely will accomplish as alumni. Intrinsic motivation is crowded out by the extrinsic. Who, after all, remembers what Tony Blair studied in his Oxford days?

Hopefully, some among us will do great things in and for the world. But for many, the price of that opportunity is too dear: How many of us would say that, above all else, we are seeking out the kind of first-rate education Yale can still offer?

The Yale administration abets this. It hires with pride world leaders who bring titles with enough sheen to surpass the blemishes of their blunders on the world stage, including such gems as the Iraq War. It gestures towards educational principle by instituting distributional requirements and then abandons all pretense of rigor by offering An Issues Approach to Biology and Planets and Stars.

Even Provost Peter Salovey’s signature class, Great Big Ideas, is based on the premise that intellectual exploration is something students can’t be bothered to do outside a class.

Perhaps worst of all, the Admissions Office fails to emphasize — the way, say, the University of Chicago or Swarthmore does — that one comes to Yale to learn.

It’s easy to treat education solely as a path to gainful employment, especially when that’s so hard to find. But Yale can provide haven from those practical pressures. These are the only four years in our lives when we can devote ourselves to thinking.

As the University selects its 23rd president, we students must do everything in our power to ensure that the first priority of those who lead our institution is to rejuvenate its intellectual climate. Of course, President Levin, over the last two decades, has been invaluable in ensuring that the facilities and faculty are of the highest caliber. But those efforts will have been wasted on Yale College if we take no joy in the life of the mind. Now, from the bottom of this University, we must reclaim our highest intellectual ideals and demand that those at the top do the same.

Gabriel Levine is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact him at gabriel.levine@yale.edu.


  • The Anti-Yale

    At last! A firebrand student.

    I thought they were extinct.

    You are hereby nominated for the **PK Holy Smoke Award for Freedom of Speech.**

    Bravo, (whoever you are) Mr. Levine!


    • Goldie08


  • River_Tam

    I don’t see why the twin pursuits of preparing ourselves for employment and devoting ourselves to thinking need be mutually exclusive or even at odds with one another.

  • JimSleeper

    I endorse Gabriel Levine’s critique of the college’s policies and priorities and his assessment of the broader societal pressures on students.

    A liberal education is both a luxury and a wound. It’s a luxury these days because you do need some freedom from economic and political constraints, as well as from escapist distractions, to really engage a liberal education’s lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit. But it’s a wound because, if you really do grasp those challenges, you’re not likely to become an unctuous conformist.

    Here’s the text of the talk yesterday at Beinecke Plaza that Levine describes:


  • jorge_julio

    The extra-curricular bazaar is the worst thing ever

  • Yalie

    “We seek to distinguish ourselves within a narrow conception of professional success, prizing high grades over challenging courses, default subjects of study over those that might truly interest us and e-board meetings over office hours. These habits draw us away from the very reason Yale attracts us in the first place: academic excellence.”

    – Speak for yourself.

  • prufrock

    I think what we need, most of all, is to stop thinking of ourselves as intellectuals and to start thinking of ourselves as people.

    I effectively have drafts of this article on my computer; for a long time, I’ve been frustrated with Yale academic culture. Late at night, I wrote long rants about Great Big Ideas and the blatant brown-nosing and “networking” culture.

    And then I realized the problem was me. This article is the problem with Yale, I think. It’s so easy to box up a group of people and then tell them what they’re doing wrong. That box of people could be conservatives, liberals, it could be a racial group, it could be a certain socioeconomic class–it could be Yalies. What gives anyone that right? Behind Mr. Levine’s article lurks a “greater-than-thou” mentality….we got into Yale because we’re intellectuals, so, goddamn it, let’s be those elite! And, most of all, let *me* tell *you* about how awful you are.

    To be honest, though, I’ve met people outside of Yale who just blow Yalies out of the water. Some of them weren’t educated at all, and many of them had probably never heard of Kant or Locke or Hegel. But it didn’t matter–they were still insanely smart, driven, and passionate.

    We’re not the best of the best–we’re just, maybe, the luckiest. We have a chance to learn and to use that knowledge to change things.

    I’m sick of people telling me what to do, when I suspect that everything they write is seeping in hypocrisy. I wish we could–I wish that I could–stop worrying so much about what other people think and just focus on what to believe and what to accomplish.

    It’s not about academic excellence–it’s about learning. And learning, I think, so that we can become better people.

    • prufrock

      Also, what the hell does “highest intellectual ideals” mean? It makes me feel sick.

      • jorge_julio

        for heaven’s sake, why does everyone have to be just like everyone else? why is it impossible to say that some people lead better lives than others? The point of the “life of the mind” is not to be smarter than everyone else. The point is to care about your education and not whatever i-bank job it may get you later on.

        The fact that prufrock and so many others understand the liberal arts as just another hurdle for proving one’s brilliance – and not as anything more – is yet more evidence for how thoroughly Yale has been corrupted.

        • prufrock

          You misread my comment; I certainly don’t see the liberal arts as “another hurdle for proving one’s brilliance.”
          If I did, why would I still go to Yale?
          Also, sure: maybe some people do live better lives than others. But there’s no authority on what constitutes a “better” life (although Romney might think he qualifies). I don’t know who you are or what you’ve experienced, so I would never try to force you to be a certain way. I want to learn, and I love learning, so that’s what I’ll do, but it’s not your place (or anyone else’s place) to tell me that I ***should*** or that I ***have to***.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “An intellectual is someone who is of being EXCITED by ideas.”

    John Ciardi
    (Acclaimed translator of Dante’s “The Paradiso”, “The Purgatorio” and “The Inferno.”)

  • The Anti-Yale

    Wow! I goofed THAT up ! Try again , PK

    **”An intellectual is someone who is CAPABLE of being EXCITED by ideas.”
    John Ciardi**

    (Acclaimed translator of Dante’s “The Paradiso”, “The Purgatorio” and “The Inferno.”)

    • penny_lane

      PK, you can just say “The Divine Comedy.” Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso are not actually separate works; they’re separate canticles of a larger work. If you want to look like a true purist, you can just say, “La Commedia.” Dante himself didn’t put the “Divine” in there; it was added later.

      If you continue to choose to list them backwards and in Italian, leave “the” out. For one thing, you’re mixing languages. Would you want your students to write about “Il Paradise Lost?” No. For another, the articles don’t exist in the Italian: it’s just Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It would be like saying, “I’m going to The Connecticut today.”– not how it works.

      Also, Robert Pinksy is also an acclaimed translator of Dante but he is an arrogant self-serving bastard, so I take everything he says with a grain of salt. The Favorite Poem Project made Pinsky look good but it did nothing to get Americans hooked on poetics, which was its stated goal. This is just one reason why I tend to balk at the idea of, “Oh, he translated Dante, he must know what he’s talking about.” The quotation standing alone does a better job of that.

  • BtL_2012

    Dear Levine,

    You seem to have forgotten that educating the whole person requires looking beyond the classroom. Yale does that. Narrower institutions, such as UChicago or Swarthmore, provide focus on academic learning but at the expense of developing every other sort of intelligence, from EQ to the values taught in sports and the organizational skills born of extracurriculars. I suggest taking a few moments away from the books to immerse yourself in one of the vast array of other opportunities that Yale offers.
    As for the practitioners that Yale brings in, let me say this: the experience they bring is dearly bought. It facilitates a type of learning inaccessible to those who have spent their lives in academia. In the world of politics, business, or international relations, theory often does not survive contact with reality. A whole different set of skills and insights are necessary to be effective in those spheres, and that’s what practitioners teach. I believe that Yale exists to educate its students to how change the world positively. Some will do that by writing books or conducting research. Others will do that by shaping policy. Yale does that positive mission a disservice if it does not offer the resources to teach both sets of skills.

    Also, these individuals do little to detract from the academic side of Yale. For instance, the International Security Studies (ISS) program funds numerous predoctoral and postdoctoral programs. (FYI, Jim Sleeper has attacked ISS programs and affiliates repeatedly.) While Yalies were unwilling to give up their newspapers in the dining halls during the budget cuts a few years back, the administration cut graduate student slots instead. ISS created a back door to bring in graduate students who carried out research, helped teach, attended and offered lectures–in short, who acted as the lifeblood of an academic institution. Let’s face it: some of the “corporate interests” that Sleeper decries cover his paycheck. The size of Yale’s endowment is largely due to alumni who “sold out.” That isn’t to say that graduates should “sell out,” but rather to serve as a reminder that, frankly, the University needs a mix of both, and that we ought not categorically castigate a full and legitimate segment of Yale’s population. Please do not belittle the vast array of interests Yalies pursue. It is that array, extending beyond the classroom, that makes Yale such a vibrant place.
    Historically, Yale was no different. If you think that we’ve only recently been pumping out financiers and lawyers, I’d check your history books again.
    Finally, every college has a niche–that’s why you get to choose where you go. UChicago and Swarthmore do academics.
    Yale teaches a full person. That’s Yale’s niche. Maybe it doesn’t do it perfectly. Maybe some people balk when presented with the wide array of choices Yale provides. I’m not saying that Yale is a good fit for everyone. But for most of us it is.

    • Gokie

      As an alum who has attended both U of C and Yale, I’d have to agree with this overall assessment. U of C also has a range of students and interests but, in general, it’s more narrowly focused on academics. Do U of C grads do more for the world on average than Yale students do? Not from what I can tell. Are Yale students less intellectually curious on average? No. What makes Yale students different from U of C students, in my experience as teacher and student, is their range of interests and their broad awareness. Though I’m an academic now and greatly respect U of C for the quality of its academics, I’d still rather my child go to Yale, in spite of its flaws and compromises, for all the reasons stated above.

    • ldffly

      I’m in agreement here. I think the college system is a big source of Yale College’s virtue. That’s why I hate to see it being weakened in recent years.

    • JimSleeper

      For a full explanation of Btl 2012’s observation that people who’ve “sold out” often contribute generously to Yale, I commend an essay about Yale, “Quarrels With Providence,” by Lewis Lapham, that ran in the Yale Alumni Magazine a few months before 9/11. At one point, Lapham recounts,

      “I probably talked to as many as 200 people about events at the College in the last quarter of Henry Luce’s century, and if the conversation went the distance of a second drink, I invariably could count on the prophet seated across the table at Mory’s or standing at the bar of the Yale Club to open a vein of idealism…. [Having been ‘wounded’ by liberal education at Yale], ]they expected more of themselves than a fortune in vulcanized rubber or a row of condominiums on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The object of a Yale education they remembered as a joining of the proofs of success to those of conscience, the perfect synthesis of the College dialectic never more perfectly expressed than by James C. Thompson, a member of the Class of 1953 who subsequently became both a Chinese scholar and an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency—’Do good, walk humbly with thy God; but become powerful, famous, and, if possible, affluent.'”

      The essay is at


  • yalengineer

    Wait a second… if I was going to go to school where I would have prioritized the curricular over the extracurricular, I would have gone to a tech school.

    But instead I ended up here. Clearly, I must have made the wrong life choice.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” It’s so easy to box up a group of people and then tell them what they’re doing wron
    What gives anyone that right?”

    **The First Amendment.**

    “Yale teaches a full person.”

    **Ever since Descartes’ pompous “Cogito Ergo Sum” we have split the whole person into two: Body/Mind. Now we split the brain in two : left/right.
    I used to tell my student, “I couldn’t stop you from learning if I TRIED. That’s what a human being is, from the moment he/she is born, a LEARNER. My job is to smuggle stuff in for your attention in such an interesting way that you want more of it.”
    Wanting “more of it” is what human beings do. They don’t do it as ‘partial’ human beings. They are completely full, all the time.
    Curricula is a smuggle job**.

  • ClaytonBurns

    The admissions problems that Gabriel identifies probably cannot be solved. If there were a systematic analysis at the level of the federal government or Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton, it would collapse.

    What I suggest is that the YDN dedicate coverage this year to admissions fundamentals, and that Yale establish a commission to study admissions practices.

    The goal would be to replace the current shambolic and preposterous admissions practices wholesale. The first thing to do would be to have formal admissions curricula so as to help shape the chaos in American high schools.

    It is probably impossible to do anything about this tumult, which is being controlled not by Gabriel but by Lucifer.

    The first baby step would be to have all students applying to Yale make a close study of Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition.” Yale could eternally offer three summer school courses of five weeks each so that high school students at the ends of grades 10-12 could master this powerful text on memory, learning, and reasoning. Nothing could be more fundamental, even for prospective students in International Security Studies (ISS).

    In the same way, high school students would benefit from close study of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume F, Twentieth Century and After. In linguistics, the COBUILD English Grammar and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, print and app, would be invaluable. In philosophy, there is no one text that is foundational in the way of “Cognition,” the Norton F, or the COBUILD English Grammar, but there are good translations of Plato and Nietzsche.

    Yale, try the baby steps in rationalizing admissions. That is my recommendation.

    We also need IT skills. It looks as if the iPhone 5 and the Microsoft Surface Pro would be good for Yale 2012-2013. When the links freeze your computer, and you have trouble getting your cursor into the comment box, the IT practices are lame.

    ISS is lame because: check one. Mainly the Mark Thompson problem. Backwards pattern recognition. After much prevarication, the White House admits: terror. Not a tea party that got out of hand. Mark Thompson? Sleeping. He must be a sleeper agent.

  • The Anti-Yale


    In 1968 I entertained John Ciardi in the president’s mansion (2 Fountain Place) at Ithaca College. I lived therewhen I was a Senior and he was their guest for a day. I was also student head of the College’s Speaker’s Bureau, so I had to ferry the distinguished guests around and bring them back to Fountain Place for cocktails, etc. http://oceansorange.blogspot.com/

    Ciardi told me his definition of an intellectual in person in late night drinks in Fountain place Library. There were only five of us there, so I heard it quite clearly.(President and Mrs. Dillingham, Lee Spangler, Director of the Egbert Student Union, Mr. Ciardi, and myself.)

    He also made it clear that he translated the three works separately. In fact, I studied them as separate paperback volumes and they were called “The Inferno” etc.
    In honor of that occasion and my own training I refer to them sperately, not as the Divine Comedy.

    Others I had to host were, Paul Goodman (“Growing Up Absurd”). This was a heartbreaker because his son, a Cornell student, had recently committed suicide and the circumstances of their relationship approached scandal.

    I also chauffeured Sidney Hook and Irving Howe around. Howe is the one who told me, personally, not to go to Viet Nam.

    I just missed a personal encounter with Leopold Stokowski, who also stayed at Fountain Place, but watching him rehearse the College’s choir inspired me for life.


    • penny_lane

      I have similar paperback volumes by various translators (Sinclair, Mandelbaum, etc), but it is very clearly one work. It is, after all, one journey, not three separate ones.

      Also, I think I’ve stumbled on the source of confusion: you can use an article to describe the canticles, e.g.: “I’ve just read a lovely translation of the Inferno!”, but it’s not actually part of the title, hence the lack of italics.

      If you get a chance, PK, watch Mazzotta’s lectures on the open Yale courses site. I took the course, and it was a joy.

  • The Anti-Yale

    CORRECTION (and apology to the late Mr. Goodman): His son died in a mountain climbing accident.

  • ClaytonBurns

    I am in a state of wretched confusion about whether you mean Yale Intellectual, or Yale Intellectual in Name Only.

    I fear the latter. Why, if you mean YI, why not have Frank Jackson of Princeton, if he is to be had, as a special lecturer for an afternoon at the YDN? His “Philosophy of Mind and Cognition” is challenging and… intellectual.

    If you mean YI, why not have first-year students master “The Great Gatsby” in the Penguin Modern Classics so as to be able to give an account of how “Ode to a Nightingale” influenced Fitzgerald? Or is this another case of I need to get my appendicitus out?

    Or just another case of lip service to love.

    Tom Buchanan has not lost his position as the archetypal Yale man.

  • Sara

    The campus might actually be safer if Levin ever walked around it.

    I hope the new University President is more visible – the CEO always should be visible, to increase morale on campus.

    Link- http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2008/jul/28/safe-streets-to-levin-improve-traffic-pedestrian/

  • The Anti-Yale

    **Penny Lane,
    Of course “The “Divine Comedy” is ONE work. I’m simply saying, that out of respect to my idiosyncratic evening with John Ciardi in 1968, I’m honoring the labor he put into the translations. I believe he said the “Paradiso” was last, and it took him ten years.
    His definition of an intellectual (which I’ve never seen published) was a gift he gave us that evening, and it has guided me for forty-four years, through the shoals of impossible snobbery and elitism.**


    “An intellectual is someone who is CAPABLE of being EXCITED by ideas.” John Ciardi

  • The Anti-Yale


    Can you give me a link to the Mazzota lectures?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Thanks, Penny_Lane !

    See my latest The Anti-Yale blog post about Ciardi and his three volumes which definitely have the article “The” on the cover.


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