This past Saturday, amidst a hectic first week of college, the class of 2017 paused together in Woolsey Hall. No Ikea shelves were built; no awkward team-building exercises with Frocos were had; no one-too-many-beers first impressions were being made (probably). Instead, a new generation of Yalies listened to Peter Salovey introduce them to Yale with a talk about the American Dream.
In a little less than 3,000 words, the first year president spoke in notes of promise and resolve, optimism and engagement. For a class new to Yale as well as upperclassmen new to the president, the address embodied an academic character all too often absent.
Salovey spoke of the American Dream as an ideal, both relevant and noble, that can transcend borders as well as materialize in our immediate experiences. For the president, that tangible understanding came to him through his father, a man he described as “poor in means but rich in culture and spirit.” Mr. Salovey (the elder) represented someone of integrity, responsibility and ethic, fluidly interweaving individual virtue with communal obligation.
He was, in short, a great American. Because of such men, our country is one of the “very few places in the world where, in two generations, a family can rise from modest means” to the podium where his remarks were given.
But most days, this school looks far different than Woolsey Hall did this Saturday, exhibiting dark corners of cynicism. In many of our ivory towers, the United States or Western civilization are topics replete with this indisposition. There is a clear intellectual movement that stalks some of mankind’s most beautiful works and accomplishments, readily willing to pounce, ready to repaint everything in the crude, all-consuming lines of class and cultural narrative.
When President Salovey spoke of his father’s experience, he did not participate in this academic pessimism; he didn’t deconstruct his example through the filter of capitalist fictions or qualify his remarks with repeated apologies for cultural imperialism. Nor did he slap his knee and read Horatio Alger fan fiction. He spoke with thoughtful moderation, appreciating the material circumstances that influence our society, with admiration for its defining ideals.
In this spirit, he invited the class of 2017 to four years of “uncomfortable and challenging conversations” through which to grow. And they could do so while standing with the thinkers, not the bomb-throwers.
But while President Salovey touched on some of Yale’s current debates, both practical and philosophical, one has to wonder how “uncomfortable and challenging” the University is prepared to be.
While he endorsed a discussion of the growing problem of tuition payments, one wonders if Yale is prepared to protect its financial aid program against President Obama’s new plan to tie federal grants to student-loan forgiveness. On the topic of the least fortunate reaching these halls, Yale administrators have long been silent on finally promoting school-choice reforms that could break down those buildings of conscripted mediocrity a few blocks down the street.
The address spoke to Yale’s difficulty of access for those whose American Dream exists outside major cities: but the divide runs deeper than resources and publicity. It is one of attitude and acceptance. “I encourage you to be sensitive and open to one another. You will meet students here from all walks of life,” urged Salovey. How often though is pause given for those who are treading water in the deep end of a culture far from the one shaped at home by faith and family? How often is sensitivity a reciprocal courtesy for those committed to the sanctity of life? In freshman orientations teeming with condom demonstrations and sex tips, are we up for these honest discussions or is it just easier to relegate peers of a different belief set to an earlier era?
These are the discussions that President Salovey opened the door for: hard, pressing, uneasy conversations that constitute the requisites for a character shaped by a true education. Along with compassion and sensitivity, these real dialogues involve a bit of courage, conviction and grit — something perhaps missing a bit from a campus not short on a confident majority.
This reflective, thoughtful spirit begins with our leaders. It seems we are off to a good start.
Harry Graver is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.