Standing atop the Sears Tower’s Glass-Bottom Sky Deck, 103 stories above ground, it’s hard not to feel your stomach lurch. When you consider your position logically, you know you’re safe — but when you look downward, you instinctively feel afraid. By the same token, if someone were to give you a delicious smoothie prepared in a sterilized toilet bowl you’d probably cringe.
In 2007 a well-known philosopher wrote about this phenomenon and labeled it alief: an automatic attitude that exists in opposition to a person’s rationally thought-out beliefs. Beliefs are based on one’s observations and logical analysis, while aliefs are triggered subconsciously by one’s surroundings. Nonetheless, both play a potent role in shaping human behavior.
That philosopher was Professor Tamar Gendler. In her influential paper coining the term alief, Gendler explained how our arbitrary preconceived notions sometimes guide behavior even more powerfully than our true belief systems. Even people who deeply believe in racial equality may instinctively brace themselves when meeting someone of a different race because of subconscious aliefs.
Gendler was recently appointed Yale’s first deputy provost for the humanities and initiatives, which at first sounds a bit “Brave New World”-esque — a faculty bureaucrat in charge of administrating creative ideas. But Gendler’s new position also presents an opportunity to reevaluate how students and administrators conceive of change and innovation at Yale. And to do that, Gendler must confront our deeply ingrained aliefs about the University.
Many of us believe that Yale is a progressive campus. We believe that the University adapts to contemporary times — that’s why we have gender-neutral housing, the dining halls offer vegan options and Yale Health covers sex reassignment surgery.
But I think our aliefs about Yale tell us something very different. From the moment we arrive on campus, we perceive the University as an old, storied school steeped in centuries of well-preserved tradition. We begin our Yale careers in a ceremony that feels archaic, waving handkerchiefs and singing a song written in 1881 that pledges our allegiance to “dear old Yale.” We walk down Elm Street passing gothic ivy-covered buildings, and we mark our years with traditions like toasting at Mory’s.
Though we believe Yale is a progressive university, we alieve that this campus is deeply set in its ways. That alief can make it difficult for students to generate solutions to campus problems that break with Yale’s long-established practices. All too often, students rely on Yale College Council representatives to write up proposals in committees and publish reports such as last year’s infamous survey on salad.
Up until now, there has been no real incentive for students to break with tradition and conceive of new initiatives or represent themselves. With no administrator focused on translating ideas into concrete programs and policies, students have often tolerated Yale’s status quo — long lines at the post office, the lack of food options on science hill, a lack of accommodations for transgender students.
Gendler is uniquely positioned to confront aliefs about Yale’s traditionalism, and to encourage students to see themselves as able to effect change on campus. Last week Gendler met with Aaron Gertler ’15 who created “Yale Ideas,” a Facebook group used to brainstorm projects, programs and policies that would improve campus life. Meeting with random students may not seem like the most efficient way to bring change to the University, but it may be just the sort of creative chaos Yale needs. Gendler can make her new office into a think tank of sorts. But to do that, she can’t just assume her new position and trust that students will approach her with ideas. Most students don’t know that Gendler’s new position exists, let alone what it will mean for the University. Gendler should be proactively reaching out to students from all corners of campus and bringing their ideas to relevant faculty members and administrators.
Gendler will only act as deputy provost for one year. But she has an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. By empowering individual students and promoting their initiatives, she can combat the alief that Yale is fundamentally a traditional campus, where change is slow and happens only through preexisting structures.
Emma Goldberg is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at email@example.com .