Section is a very dirty word in the Yale undergraduate lexicon, right up there on the loathsome scale with terms like “gonorrhea” and “erectile dysfunction.” To opine that discussion sections are a formative component of our liberal arts education would be like announcing to your dinner companions that STDs build moral character: people either snicker at you, or regard you with suddenly wary eyes and slowly inch away.
A culture of opinionated discontent permeates every conversation I have ever had with friends about section, but this has always served as an opportunity for solidarity and commiseration — until recently, when The Yale Daily News’ questionable decision to publish a page headlined “Section assholes, shut the f*ck up” in the Oct. 3, 2005, Joke Issue inspired me to address the problem.
While I understand this page was intended to be digested with a very large grain of salt, the fact remains that some students apparently feel so grieved by their experiences with section as to resort to airing their dirty laundry in public. Using the newspaper — a vehicle of considerable power in the Yale community — as a private medium for voicing petty misgivings about one’s classmates was not only irresponsible, but pointed to a much larger issue endemic to Yale’s undergraduate culture.
Section can often be a screen on which deep class divisions and racial and cultural differences play out among students, creating a potentially fruitful tension that provides opportunities for cross-cultural and trans-ideological exchange. We import not only our understanding of the assigned readings, but the personal histories that invariably inflect our interpretations of such readings. These are necessarily histories of subjective experience and histories of economic and racial-ethnic difference that we normally don’t discuss outside the rarefied and permissive air of academia. For this reason, section is the last pluralized field of student encounters, our final chance to test our beliefs and expose the inconsistencies of our thinking in an environment designed for “deliberate diversity.”
As such, ideological tensions can be healthy: they ought to be the mainstay of section discussion. But it seems students here are not beyond resorting to name-calling and using the infantile mode of ad hominem attack. Instead of critiquing the logical and empirical validity of classmates’ ideas, we form immediate judgments about their character and human worth. This attack on the source of the argument is unjustifiable in a supposedly collegial culture of open exchange.
Why did we come to Yale in the first place? To engage in a participatory community of ideas, or to walk around projecting onto the world the fallacy that everyone else is guilty of occasional pretentiousness and should therefore be publicly tarred and feathered?
Case in point: I recall a recent class in which one student raised the point that capitalism inevitably creates distributive inequality of wealth, because its economic engine requires the division of people into a laboring class and a far more privileged echelon of capital-owners who control the means of production. A petulant Republican classmate became infuriated at this: she retaliated by arguing that “everyone can own capital, because everyone who owns a house has capital.” When it was mentioned that the working classes of the Industrial Revolution probably didn’t own houses, this stalwart soul responded, “Well, even if you lived in a cardboard box, you still own capital!”
People in section could have stopped at that point, thrown in the towel, and passed judgment on the basis of her popped collar, her pink polo, her ignorance of the sources of social inequity, and more seriously, her heated refusal to consider others’ ideas. The girl proceeded to roll her eyes and scribble nasty notes with her friends in the middle-school peanut gallery on the right side of the room. But I think most of us just let it go. We critiqued her ideas, and then we moved on to other topics. At least this classmate brought to section a controversial body of beliefs that stimulated me to fortify my own thinking.
Here’s the bottom line: at a school like Yale, where everyone insists they are entitled to a “smart” label, I am astonished at the forceful, disingenuous anti-intellectualism that students posture for each other. This performative anti-intellectual display is worse than an STD, because you can catch it just sitting in section and watching how antagonistic people become to students who volunteer comments and who finished the reading. For these students, it’s as if the most heinous crime possible is to come to class with diverse viewpoints or even to be genuinely and passionately excited by the material. By refusing to participate and intervene, such students are guilty of an even worse kind of pernicious snobbery: the Anti-Snob Snob.
I posit that your classmates here are intelligent, they are listening, and many of them will consider your ideas without attacking your personhood. As easy as it is to assume a jaundiced view of your peers, it’s considerably harder to respect the wealth of viewpoints they have to offer, and to treat them with dignity and civility. But I ask that students here at least try. Why? Because we came to Yale to use our brains, because we are not 12 years old, and because this is not the kiddie sandbox anymore.
Baolu Lan is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.