At high school convocation, Salovey talks psychology

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Wearing the same blue academic robes tailored for his inauguration but now standing before the Hopkins School’s maroon banner, University President Peter Salovey addressed a crowd of over 800 high school students and faculty Wednesday.

In delivering the annual convocation address for Hopkins School, a coeducational institution for grades 7–12 in New Haven, Salovey focused on his work as a psychologist rather than on his new role as Yale’s president. He spoke at length on the topic of emotional intelligence ­— a concept he and a colleague developed in the 1990s — and answered questions about emotional intelligence’s impact on populations from high school athletes to soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The most important thing emotional intelligence can do for people is open you to information you would normally ignore,” Salovey told the crowd. “What I’m not saying is your gut is always right, but what I am saying is your gut is not random.”

In an interview with the News, Salovey said he wanted to emphasize two themes in his speech: how paying attention to emotions provides additional data about people and how important it is to be persistent in the face of obstacles. Drawing from his own experience with perseverence as an example, Salovey said the concept of emotional intelligence had not been a popular idea when he first began writing about it.

Salovey said he hopes students came away from his speech with a better understanding of the skills that constitute emotional intelligence, such as managing one’s emotions. These skills may be helpful “as students deal with the stresses of the college admissions season,” he said.

After his address, Salovey conducted a question and answer session with approximately 70 students.

When one member of the audience asked how Salovey personally defines success, the Yale president first demurred by suggesting that his understanding of success is no better than others. But he added that his vision would include having a positive impact on the world and maintaining good relationships with others.

Bluegrass music — a favorite of Salovey’s, who plays the bass in a bluegrass band — played in the background as students streamed out of a tent on Hopkins’s Pratt Field, where the ceremony was held, and back to their daily classes.

Students, faculty and administrators interviewed were broadly positive about the speech and the way Salovey interacted with members of the Hopkins community.

“He’s a teacher at his heart, and he made a clear decision to teach rather than lecture,” Hopkins Head of School Barbara Riley said.

Hopkins faculty members interviewed framed Salovey’s speech in terms of their day-to-day work at the school.

“As educators it is essential to look for expressions and emotions in students’ faces,” said David DeNaples, a history instructor at the school.

Psychology teacher Joshua Brandt said that Hopkins’s psychology classes, which enroll a total of 45 students, had recently discussed emotional intelligence. Referencing Salovey’s statements about the possibility of introducing emotional intelligence into school curricula, Brandt said he is intrigued by this idea but acknowledges that it would require “high levels of emotional intelligence” from faculty members.

Michael Zhu, a freshman at Hopkins, said he found the speech engaging because it addressed a topic not normally discussed in his classes.

Founded in 1660 on the New Haven Green, 41 years before Yale was established, Hopkins traditionally educated the children of Yale faculty, though its current student body comes from a far broader background. The school now sits atop a hill in the suburban West of the city, from which the spires of Yale’s campus are clearly visible.

Condoleezza Rice was last year’s Hopkins convocation speaker.

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