When we were young, we were often asked whether we’d rather be a big fish in a small pond or small fish in a big pond.
But it was a false dilemma. We never really got to choose between big ponds and small ponds, nor will we in the future. Big ponds are drying up all around us. Small ponds are burgeoning. We instead choose what particular small pond we want to plunge into.
This transition, from the big and few to the small and many, is redrawing the confines in which we live.
A few decades ago, the Yale Daily News and the Yale Political Union were the only two big extracurricular organizations on campus. Nothing rivaled them in size or finances. At one point in the 1980s, over a quarter of students were active YPU members, attending meetings and participating in debate.
Today, such involvement is unthinkable. Even major Yale events like football games and athletic championships struggle to reach such levels of participation. Now Yalies can choose between hundreds of clubs for specific interests: prison tutoring, singing, bookmaking. Societies have also burst in numbers. Just a few decades ago, only landed societies existed. Now there are over thirty senior societies, some of them simply formal extensions of existing friend groups.
Gone, too, are the days of students gathering around bulletin boards on Cross Campus. Now most Yalies get their event information via email panlists that serve particular interests, from the Yale Cabaret to Yale Athletics.
Yale isn’t the only place disrupted by this transition. The national journalism industry is in shambles, as the Times and the Post are squeezed by smaller, niche publications that target vastly different viewerships. Twitter has replaced town hall meetings, allowing each individual to speak at will. Even college graduates now contemplate starting their own company or freelancing instead of climbing the ladder of Big Three corporations.
I don’t know why big things are being chopped up into smaller bits. Nor am I nostalgic for the good old days where people did things together, simply because I never lived in those days. My generation does not know assemblies and flourishing orations; instead we know hard drives and screens. Nor have we lived in a place where people rely on church bells to signal the passing of an hour. Here, everyone has their own watch, and everyone tells their own time.
Still, I wonder where this transition will lead. As personalized feeds develop, will there be a point where we’ll be reading none of the same news? As displays like Google Glass gain popularity, will each Yalie end up literally seeing different things in class?
And if we do, can we still live together as a community? Can we find commonality as our common ground slowly vanishes?
Big things guarantee a collective experience. Small things don’t.
Aristotle once wrote that “the acceptance of a fact as a fact is the starting point … there will be no further need to ask why it is so.” By “facts” he meant fundamental communal values that needed to be taken for granted. Questioning them, he thought, had the potential to tear apart a fragile social fabric.
We know that Aristotle’s belief can lead to oppressive groupthink. Indeed, questioning these very facts have engendered the self-sufficiency of tech start-ups and the individualism of revolutions.
The danger of small things is not in challenging facts, but rather the potential for two different sets of facts entirely. Each of us increasingly lives in our own small bubble — speaking with the same people, pursuing our own narrow passions and yes, picking our own facts to ingest.
Communities like Yale are not fictional and cannot be taken for granted. We came to Yale because it felt most human to us, because we felt an overwhelming sense of belonging. But belonging requires something to belong to, and that something could slip away. We have already seen our unity decay: packs of students no longer flock to athletic games, student protests and Masters’ Teas. Even Peter Salovey’s inauguration next week — the biggest Yale celebration in 20 years — has not invited the excitement that it deserves.
The most tragic danger for Yale, in the long-term, is to lose what higher education has been when all else was lost: a bastion for community. When our kids come to Yale, our ponds will have likely shrunk even more. It is up to our community builders — Masters and Deans, chaplains and administrators — along with our common student effort, to make sure these small ponds don’t dry up.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.