There was something disturbing about the protest against a possible war in Iraq, the “die-in” where Yale students pretended to be dead in the War Memorial in the Woolsey Rotunda. I was disturbed not because of the message of the protest — I firmly believe that everyone has the right to express their views on the United States’ foreign policy. I was disturbed because while the students lay prostrate on the floor, they seemed not to notice the names carved in the walls around them — names of students who have given their lives for their country.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why it bothered me so much — after all, I had seen plenty of other protests by students before. Yet the image lingered in my mind. It wasn’t until I passed Branford on the way back to my room in JE that I figured it out. Written above the Branford gate was Yale’s motto: “For God, For Country, and For Yale.”
You can’t go anywhere on campus without seeing the phrase “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” It’s all over the Yale Bookstore, and it’s written in stone on residential colleges. It’s up in students’ rooms across campus.
It’s a great motto — a motto that speaks volumes about the priorities of Yale students and faculty.
At least it did.
Now we live in an era of political correctness and moral relativism. While the motto is still all over campus, it is an anachronism. It is more like an epitaph on the tombstone of generations passed than a living call to service.
These concepts — specifically, the idea that service on behalf of one’s country and one’s school is an integral part of a liberal education — are no longer stressed in the education of Yale students. If these ideas still live at Yale, it is because individuals continue to recognize their importance. Yale as an institution has long since abandoned the motto in an educational sense.
It is interesting to note that Yale continues to use the motto in advertising and in PR campaigns. The motto was the theme of the 2001 Tercentennial celebration in the Yale Bowl and continues to be used in pamphlets designed to attract potential students to Yale. It seems that the University recognizes the power of the motto to inspire young minds but lacks the resolve to encourage the motto to be taught or lived in practice.
It takes courage to teach and to follow a motto like Yale’s — courage that our generation desperately needs. We are the generation that will have to deal with growing anti-American sentiment around the world. We are the generation that will have to decide the role of the world’s only superpower. We are the generation that will inherit a war we did not start.
It is easy to blame the United States for the problems in the world — it is hard to be “For Country” and serve your country in an effort to fix those problems. It is easy to avoid debate and controversy by declaring yourself to be a moral relativist — it is hard to live up to the motto “For God” and argue on the behalf of a moral order. It is easy to blame Yale for the problems in New Haven — it is hard to be “For Yale” and work with Yale to improve our city. It is easy to play lip service to Yale’s motto while ignoring it in practice.
It disgusts me to see students staging a “die-in” at the war memorial in the rotunda — not because they oppose military action in Iraq, but because of their lack of respect for the men and women of Yale that gave the ultimate sacrifice to their country.
Harry Flaster is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.