HOLMES: Eli 1 and Eli dumb

Annelisa_opinion taotao yalies are dumb_01162014
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Frank, a staff member who works the Sterling Library main entrance, once let me in on an astute observation: Yalies are very intelligent, but they can also be very dumb.

Tao Tao Holmes“‘Dumb’ is not quite the right word,” countered Danilo, who generally works the Wall Street entrance. Instead, Danilo said, we Yalies are “not very well-oriented.” We seem flummoxed when we’re forced into a changed environment, a disruption of schedule or routine — the temporary terror of the Sterling rat tunnel, for instance. Dani recounted one time when a guy was reading something so vigorously that he rammed his head into one of the stone sculptures on the wall near the checkout desk. “It’s good to be dedicated to your studies, for your parents, for yourself,” Dani said. “But to lose your sense of surroundings to the point that you hit yourself in the head?”

Yalies are told over and over that we are the country’s academic all-stars and we are forever striving to fulfill these obese expectations. But now and then, Yalies reveal a poor sense of individual orientation, manifested in a quiet yet desperate desire to be taught how to excel in the personal realm, a realm far less systematized than the academic. I still remember showing up with some suitemates and over 200 other students to the “happiness panel” in November 2012, hosted by Vita Bella and featuring three wise (and I assume happy) professors, Shelly Kagan, Laurie Santos and Michael Frame. Being overall a very happy person, why did I go? I’m not entirely sure, but I think we all sensed that if Yale knew how to teach us cognitive science and fractal geometry, it would also know how to teach us the tenets of proper happiness. How to learn, how to live — we assume all the answers come as part of the package deal.

But is it fair to expect all the answers from panels that sound like the title of the next Malcolm Gladwell bestseller?

One November later, writer and MIT professor Junot Diaz spoke to an assembly of Yalies eager for prophetical answers. “From the questions being asked, all I hear is fear,” he told the audience. “It rolls off you in waves.” It feels like Yalies go to luminaries like Diaz with the same expectations as they carry to office hours with an English TA. We want to create beauty — and we want the formula for an A.

After achieving acceptance to Yale for being, among other things, excellent followers of instruction, we are primed to gravitate towards instruction in “happiness” in the same way we might be drawn to instruction in computer programming. And they are both good skills to have, no? While we expect Yale will help us build our resumes, we also inevitably wonder how it will help us build character — a sense of orientation and sense of self.

The John Templeton Foundation deems Yale worthy of being listed as one of 400 “Colleges that Encourage Character Development.” These are colleges that purportedly “inspire students to lead ethical and civic-minded lives,” build character and all that.

This week, I thought I’d shop David Brooks’ course “Humility” in order to, you know, build character. The classroom was a gross violation of fire code, Yalies packed so close together they were practically licking his shoes. Brooks brought up a religion-based concept developed by a rabbi named Joseph Soloveitchik called “Adam 1 and Adam 2.” Here’s the basic idea: Adam 1 is guided by a quest for achievement and esteem. He is functional and pragmatic, looking to conquer the universe and impose knowledge, technology and cultural institutions on the world; he is a “majestic man.” Adam 2, on the other hand, is a “covenantal man” who values companionship and seeks to understand the depths of his own personality, attainable through humility and control over oneself. The tragedy of the concept is that Adam can’t ever fully realize both roles at once.

I think when Frank and Danilo shared with me their passing thoughts, they might have been onto something — something I’ll call Eli 1 and Eli 2. Eli 1 is a professional achiever, instruction-follower, and conqueror-of-the-universe who thrives off external success and reward. Eli 2 is a cultivator of character and an architect of integrity, acutely aware of himself and how he fits into his surroundings. The tragedy here is that the Eli 1 culture of Yale can leave Eli 2 somewhat underdeveloped. And that’s leaving us all a little dumb and disoriented.

Tao Tao Holmes is a senior in Branford College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays. Contact her at taotao.holmes@yale.edu.