To most Yalies, it’s a familiar scene. The time is summer break, after you have returned to your hometown. The place is a restaurant, a street corner, or most horrifyingly, a cocktail party. From out of nowhere, you are suddenly ambushed by one of your parents’ friends, perhaps even a small horde of them, who all seem disturbingly glad to see you, but whose names you only vaguely recall from the last similar ambush. A vacuous comment or two is probably exchanged about your height or the recent weather. Then, the inevitable question: “So, how are you liking Yale?!”
Assuming your inquisitor does not have an ulterior motive, say a scheme to ruthlessly mine you for advice to help a high school daughter in the throes of the admissions process, the question appears quite harmless. It seems to belong in the same category as other thoroughly meaningless questions like “How’s life?” or “How’s your family?” They are trite and impossible to answer, of course, but are nevertheless staples of that peculiar but necessary dialect we call polite conversation. Your parents’ friends have signaled a touching interest in your life, and it is not too much to ask that you produce an equally vapid response. “It’s great. I love it!” you exclaim cheerily.
Still, I find that there is a much more troubling side to this seemingly polite question, only because so many adults actually seem to believe that a meaningful reply is possible. Mrs. Patterson, as she smiles hopefully at you and sips from her wineglass, actually believes you can take the unfathomably complex mix of emotions and experiences that have so far composed your years at Yale and reduce the whole mess to a single evaluative statement. She truly wants you to sort out the tangle of successes, failures, and those confused in-between interactions with our friends and professors, which were neither, and serve the whole thing up in one sentence. What does she honestly expect to hear? “Yale is an evil, sinister institution from which I want to unhesitatingly flee?” “Yale has completed me as no human soulmate possibly could?”
The unreasonable expectation that a college experience can be boiled down to a letter grade or a yes-no answer is more understandable when looked at in the context of the current American college application process. Who can blame poor Mrs. Patterson for expecting that her question can be answered when the entire publishing industry seems premised on the fact that it can? With college guides more abundant than Harry Potter books and college magazine rankings more plentiful than Letterman top-ten lists, our bookshelves and newsstands are perpetually crammed with a battery of mathematical collegiate evaluations. Why is Yale ranked third while Princeton and Harvard tied for first? Never fear: U.S. News and World Report’s hard-hitting analysis will unveil the truth!
In a time when so much of our day-to-day existence is defined by the brands we choose and the company logos we embrace or reject, it is perhaps predictable that our society tries to transform colleges into brand-names as well. Just as you buy from Nike because you expect a certain shoe, drink Pepsi because you expect a certain taste, and lease a Ford because you like the way it drives, Americans today want to know if, as Yale students, we are satisfied with our choices as consumers. Our families are shelling out good money for the blue “Y” rather than the crimson “H;” now, the only question is whether we are getting our money’s worth. College is a terrific investment, but too many parents are starting to take that idea literally, seeking Ivy acceptances for their children with the fervor of day traders hunting for winning stocks. And, the reasoning goes, like any other stock, at any given time your college is either up or down.
Do I like Yale? Yes, in much the same way I like life — quite a lot, but not in any way that’s remotely easy to quantify or sum up. This is not to say that it’s somehow wrong or shallow for high school seniors and their parents to carefully investigate the pros and cons of different schools before making their decisions. On the contrary, given the importance of the years we spend at college and the money we pay for that experience, it would be foolish not to carry out a thorough investigation. But it is also worth realizing that, in the end, no matter how much America wants to find the bottom line, some experiences simply don’t add up neatly. The four years you spend on this campus cannot be summarized for anyone else. Only you can understand their true worth, their true cost and their true meaning. And even that may take a long, long time to figure out.
Roger Low is a sophomore in Branford College.