ZELINSKY: What is the college for?

On Point

For all of three days, Professor Ray Fair’s report on grade inflation was hot news worthy of dining hall conversations. Now, close to two weeks after its release, the report has receded from public view. In March, the Yale College Council will host a town hall with Professor Fair. In all likelihood, few students will attend.

nathaniel zelinksy headshot (by kat oshman)

Our community is ignoring an important opportunity — an opportunity that is more than simply a chance to discuss the serious concerns raised by the Fair Committee. Now is a rare moment in which we can — and should — rearticulate the purpose of Yale College.

Professor Fair’s report asks us to consider why universities grade: Why measure how much knowledge a student acquires in a class? To answer that question though, we inevitably find ourselves asking another: Why do we teach at all? It’s not cheap to teach Yalies. In fact by the time you factor in tuition and revenue from the endowment, it costs almost a half a million dollars to educate each of us over four years. Society invests a shocking amount in every student who comes through Phelps Gate.

But why? Why devote inordinate resources to our higher education? We don’t normally hear anyone — students, faculty or administrators — ask these questions, which all boil down to: “Why does Yale and all its academic splendor exist?” And not only do we not ask these questions — we can’t answer them.

To his credit, President Richard Levin, our most public figure, has tried to address these questions before — at Yale graduations and convocations mostly. In his 2012 baccalaureate, he argued that a Yale degree comes with a “responsibility” for public service. And in 2011, he told incoming freshman that their education was intended to prepare them to raise the tenor of public debate at a time of growing partisanship — to create free-thinking citizens who are the sinews of a democratic nation.

But these two institutionalized occasions for self-reflection, once when we enter and once when we leave Yale, are few are far between. They bookend our college experience, but do not permeate our mindset.

And for the record, Mr. Levin does not always offer a consistent conception of Yale College. At the most recent freshman assembly, he simply listed a long litany of available resources, from museums to Pulitzer-Prize-winning professors. The takeaway: Make the most of Yale’s many opportunities.

This message comports with much of what Yalies hear when they initially set foot on campus. They are told that they were successful to have made it to Yale; theirs peers also succeeded in high school; now, go forth and succeed again — in a myriad of fields, all equally valid.

Yet we are rarely told to find a higher purpose — beyond our own success — for which we should strive.

For all that I disliked their tone and their tactics and their allies, last year’s Occupy Morgan Stanley protestors brought these fundamental questions into the limelight. They forced Yalies to confront the purpose of our educations and our roles in society. But muddled in the shrouds of class warfare, Occupy’s cause died quickly, and with it went the collective moment of existential introspection.

A century ago, Owen Johnson offered a vision for our community at the end of Stover at Yale: At our ideal, the College should train “men of brains, of courage, of leadership, a great center of thought to stir the country and bring it back to the understanding of what man creates with his imagination, and dares with his will.” To me, that’s almost the answer — if a little wordy and pompous. It also doesn’t tell us how to live our day-to-day lives.

Professor Fair has happily given us another chance to ask: What is Yale College for? Let’s take advantage of it.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu .

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