“It’s the principle of the thing!”
This is the last defense of the person who insists on feeling aggrieved even though he knows no one has done him any harm. It is the cry of the petulant child who has been given the bigger portion of the candy bar but resents that he was not able to hold the knife.
When a person complains about process but has nothing to say of substance, it is probably time to start ignoring her. These sorts of procedural complaints are precisely what seem to animate the students upset over the Yale presidential search. But in focusing on procedure, these students reveal a sad truth about our generation’s lack of direction.
This past Monday, the presidential search committee held an open forum in Battell Chapel and attempted to hear from undergraduates what students were looking for in Yale’s next president. Instead of providing actual views or meaningful suggestions, would-be student activists used the forum as a platform to prove how activist they are.
It makes perfect sense for students to want to influence the selection of Yale’s next president — but only if they have concrete ideas about what candidates ought to look like. Indeed, allowing for this influence was the point of the forum. Sadly, most of the students making noise over the selection procedure ideas are utterly lacking in concrete ideas. That’s a shame; I’m sure that thoughtful students could actually contribute useful perspectives to members of the search committee, but we don’t seem to be hearing those voices.
I can only imagine the frustration the search committee must feel when it turns to students to ask for their input, and then only receives input about how to better receive input. When student activists proudly explain to the News that they deliberately avoided offering “any sort of substantive suggestion” and that “what was important was not allowing the forum to go the way [the committee] wanted,” we should not take them seriously.
There is a time and place for complaints about procedure. Students have zero reason to believe that the search committee is some nefarious group seeking to undermine their interests. Let’s not forget that people get onto the Yale Corporation by donating massive amounts of time, talent and treasure to the university.
So why are students up in arms?
The truth is sad: a small number of students look wistfully at the confrontational campuses of the Vietnam era and wish they too could stand for something. But they lack concrete ideas of what to stand for and can’t seem to find worthy avenues to express their righteous indignation. Failing to find substantive issues for which to advocate, they fight for procedural reform.
The efforts of Students Unite Now are the symptom of a generational problem. Our generation hungers for meaning, but lacks actual aims. We look longingly at King and Churchill and wish to emulate their heroism, but we forget that their oratory and advocacy is not what made them great: It was the importance of their causes.
I have too many friends who are aspiring politicians and legislators, but who don’t have a clue what they want to legislate. Our peers try causes on like hats, searching for one that fits and feels right. We are trained to write neat narratives for our lives — to describe how sometime in middle school we happened upon injustice and became enraged and decided our life’s work. But far more often than not, these narratives are forced and trite. In pursuit of meaning, we abandon authenticity.
We were not all meant to fight great fights. Only some of us, and only occasionally, were meant to fall into them. We should live our lives as decently as possible, raising families and doing good, open to inspiration but never forcing its hand. For if we push too hard, we are no different than the child crying over his candy.
Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.