Why don’t Yale students of today experience outrage and act on it?
At a dinner a few days ago, I heard this question from a university administrator who has been at Yale for decades. Initially, it sounded odd: We are all overwhelmingly accustomed to the third rails of Yale culture. Any person to suggest that Breaking Bad may be overrated (which is an irredeemable opinion) or that Hillary Clinton does not actually rain manna down from the sky (which isn’t) is sure to receive a response ranging from a twitch of the eye to a piercing rebuke.
The point of the question, though, was not to suggest that we lack strong opinions. Rather, when it comes to acting on them, we are the “second silent generation.” Our behavior is in line with those who preceded the radicals of the 1960s. We just don’t get that angry. Injustice of whatever fold still exists around us, but we don’t seem inclined to shout it from the rooftops or — more fittingly — outside Woodbridge Hall.
For the outrage-inclined, it seems that we are, at best, a bunch of Tony Soprano’s Gary Coopers — those “strong, silent types.” At worst, we are incredibly fortunate individuals crippled by a combination of shallow pragmatism and selective apathy.
This is not the norm everywhere. On other campuses, radicals still flourish. This past April, the campus advocacy group
“Dartmouth RealTalk” stormed into a freshman-week show to shout, “Dartmouth has a problem,” their unsolicited mantra on the school’s sexual culture. Last May, a fossil fuel divestment organization at Swarthmore took over a meeting of the university’s Board of Managers, with the hundred-plus person crowd shouting down students and administrators alike. “F**k Your Constructive Dialogue,” one of the protest leaders wrote in a column published afterward.
Granted, these are watered-down examples compared to the extremism of the Vietnam era, but they are still cut from the same cloth: one that holds vociferous demonstration as the best way to be heard and fear as an instrument, not a boundary-line.
At any rate, we just don’t seem to have a taste for the same flare here. Recently, the organization Y-Syndicate tried to simultaneously manufacture and fill this demand. “We seek to increase resistance to our campus’s temptations of unjust power, despondent apathy, and paralyzing complacency,” they wrote in a statement of purpose. Yet, a few sparsely attended protests later, their relevance went the way of our dads’ Woodstock memories.
Even when there are protests on Yale’s campus, the short-lived cry of participants seems to be: “When do we want it? Now! (Because seriously, I have a case interview to prep for and two papers next week).” Business is usual at Gourmet Heaven; Yale-NUS is here to stay; Peter Salovey was a successful heir apparent; Goldman Sachs still recruits here; the all-stars of the Iraq War are comfortably at Jackson; DKE hasn’t been razed to the ground; etc.
Some lament this state of affairs and put a few common culprits up to blame. Perhaps the Yale student body has grown too pre-professional to risk any aspect of their employability by touching any controversy. Or, maybe the most important battles have already been fought — what can a bunch of undergraduates actually do in 2013? Or, our inspiration has just been dulled by technology, as the ease of changing our profile pictures or sharing a link dampens any sense of urgency.
Nostalgia for the ways of radical generations past is a poor solution in search of a problem. The fact that sustained protesting doesn’t seem to come naturally to us anymore is not indicative of our generation’s softened character. Inviting speakers, volunteering, writing columns or even — God forbid — entering the private sector before feeling comfortable enough to confidently comment on the woes of our current institutions all seem like outgrowths of a more thoughtful march of genuine progress.
We are absolutely a calmer generation than the one of our parents. While we do not have the glaring issues of the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam as bold impetuses for behavior, one cannot say our college years have been without perceived injustices, from Title IX violations to the Obama administration’s contraception mandates.
We care. And our tone shouldn’t be conflated with apathy, a mistake often made by lingering pockets of radicals. We feel outrage, but we also find channels. Our generation at Yale certainly has its faults: but being able to find our voice without putting it down someone’s throat isn’t one of them.
Harry Graver is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.