SCHWARTZ: Is Yale all about compliments?

Dissentary

On Facebook, students’ news feeds are now bombarded by short bursts of anonymous praise offered through Yale Compliments. Hundreds of compliments are submitted by unnamed students about their classmates to share publicly with hundreds of others. Why do we do it?

More interestingly, when I ask friends what they think of this strange new Facebook page, I hear almost overwhelmingly positive things. People seem hesitant to admit that they like it, but they really do. But again, why?

Last night, more than 300 students crammed into LC 101 to hear professors Shelly Kagan, Laurie Santos and Michael Frame discuss happiness, fear and the meaning of life at an event organized by the Vita Bella magazine. For any event featuring local Yale professors, that is an incredibly high turnout. But for a Tuesday evening during the mad rush leading to finals, that number is particularly remarkable.

Personally, I would skip class to hear Shelly Kagan read from a phone book. And I can certainly imagine that a handful of students feel similarly about these other professors. Yet I hardly think simple cults of personality explain the outpouring of interest. What brought the hordes to LC?

The success of Yale Compliments and the turnout for the Vita Bella panel are connected. Together, they tell a story about a strange malady that overtakes most of us during our time here and points in the direction of a cure.

Yale Compliments feels natural because so much of our life here at Yale is about precisely this: compliments. Few of us here are really attention-seeking automatons, but as much as we deny it, there is a widespread hunger for recognition. Academic prizes and job offers, GPAs and societies, organizational leadership and publications, all create a culture where opportunities for pats on the back are pervasive.

And so we submit nice thoughts about our peers on Facebook. After all, public praise is the currency we know, and so we try to provide it to those we respect. We have all experienced the thrill that accompanies public recognition, so offered the opportunity, we try to provide that thrill for those we value. And perhaps with some subconscious belief in karma, we hope someone will return the favor. In the process, we reinforce the same culture that fetishizes praise — but here, at the top of an academic meritocracy, we know how to do little else.

Too many of us joined this rat race years ago, and we are unsure of how to escape. Some set their sights on college early, planning their high school years with Yale in mind. But most of us weren’t so Machiavellian; we took pride in following our passions and blithely disregarding the advice of careerists. But deep down, we had a sense that praise and acceptance would follow. And indeed, it did. At the moment we arrived at Yale, we entered a world where praise was constant and occasionally blinding.

But the Vita Bella panel shows that we were never fully lost to that strange rat race. Even in the midst of running through our time here, most of us have a vague sense that there are things far more important than the next grade or organizational election. Hundreds of students packed into LC because they were desperate to hear a person in authority say that money and praise will not ultimately make us happy. And so when professor Kagan decreed “don’t go into consulting,” the room exploded into applause.

We are blessed to attend one of the greatest educational institutions in the world. But along with the phenomenal academic and extracurricular resources that support our interests, studies and passions, there is a danger in an almost overwhelming culture of praise.

Yet Yale Compliments should be a mild amusement, not a representative of culture. In a week or two, its novelty will wear off and we will most likely forget all about it. But as it goes, any nostalgia should be nuanced by the realization that, in part, it speaks to some of the less pleasant aspects of ourselves.

Events like the last night’s panel prove that we are aware of the problem. And more importantly: frequent interactions with personalities like Santos, Kagan and Frame — who remind us of the preeminence of family, love, meaning and kindness — are a major part of the solution.

Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu .

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