While the most recent version of Yale’s application is substantially similar to the one I filled out three years ago, a new “short take” question stands out: “What is something about which you have changed your mind in the last three years?”
This is a pretty straightforward question, at first glance. If the typical American college application is a watered-down Bildungsroman, the prompt fits right into the part of the narrative where the hero reaches the moral epiphany that allows him to mature and accept his role in society. Holden Caulfield would have written about his sister and the carousel; Simba would have condensed his decision to return to Pride Rock and avenge his father into 25 words.
Yet the value of this prompt comes into focus when I pose the same question to current Yalies: What was the last really important thing you changed your mind about? I suspect that most upperclassmen, at least, will not be able to point to more than one or two instances so far this semester during which they substantially updated their beliefs about how the world works, the principles by which they live, or what society ought to look like.
Too often, we treat our Yale education simply as a chance to gain knowledge and skills. We read great works as histories rather than challenges; we take technical courses without considering their normative assumptions. But an equally important part of the college experience is the process of forming and changing our opinions, of thinking critically about how we live our lives and what world we want our actions to work towards.
Why change your mind? Why not just stick with the same worldview you came to college with? The first step to changing your mind is humility: recognizing that, among your many beliefs, it is almost certain that at least one of them is wrong. The second step is realizing that beliefs matter, that the opinions we hold have a direct impact on whether our lives and the world turn out to be good and meaningful. Once we realize how serious it is to be wrong, how could we not make every attempt to be self-critical and vulnerable to other worldviews?
We encounter so many astonishing and wonderful ideas in the classes we take here. It is a violence to these ideas we learn if we don’t actually let them impact and change us.
The near homogeneity of political belief on campus is one testament to how little Yalies change their minds. A February 2012 survey by The Politic found that only 13 percent of students identified themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative,” while 73 percent said they would be supporting Obama in the upcoming elections. Out of the nine or so specific policy issues that were asked about, only one or two did not garner close to a unanimous consensus, both regarding foreign policy. Meanwhile, the low attendance at almost every progressive campus protest during my time here suggests that Yalies do not swing too radically to the left either.
In fact, the typical Yalie only changes his mind about one thing frequently: his major and career path. Indeed, a great deal of intellectual energy goes into making the fraught choice of what we will make of ourselves, which somehow often leads us to Wall Street or a consulting firm. Far more rarely do we think critically about our personal obligations, our prejudices and assumptions, and our roles in society. I implicate myself fully in this criticism as well.
The Class of 2017 is the first group of Yalies to have told the Admissions Office something about which they changed their minds. Perhaps they entered Yale with the expectation that this is a place where great ideas clash against each other, where every moment has the potential to begin a tumultuous conversion or paradigm shift. And if this is an expectation that makes them a bit more open-minded and willing to examine their lives, it’s one worth making into a reality.
Scott Greenberg is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.