The proverbs of Yale’s past are eerily disconnected from the Yale of the present. “The thing that we call living isn’t gold or fame at all,” reads glinting script over the fireplace in Branford’s Mendell Room. “It is laughter and contentment and the struggle for a goal … [and] the shaping of a soul.” When Branford was built in 1933, Yale’s elders wanted students to gaze up at these words during sections, meetings and parties, that this advice might engrave itself in students’ minds, as much as on Yale’s walls.
Today, we too often lack the time to appreciate the beauty Yale offers us: the intellectual pleasures, the wonderful people. Hard work can be a source of passion. It is, in any case, a part of life. The problem is how much rides on such hard work, at what age, and at what price.
“Laughter and contentment” jostle for our attention among hundreds of pages of reading, extracurriculars and countless lectures and Master’s Teas. Yale’s intellectual cornucopia is a great blessing. Its rigor is worth cherishing. But its anarchy of choice (“I could do this, or this, or this…”) morphs from invigorating to nerve-racking, as pressure heightens to home in on a job’s path, as internships and spaces at professional schools grow as elusive as the GPA needed to seize them, and as competition swells for these prizes. “The shaping of a soul” struggles against the shaping of a career.
Flipping open a Yale songbook to 1867’s “Eli Yale,” one finds: “In Junior year, we take our ease / As evidenced by C’s and D’s. / In Senior year, we act our parts / By making love and winning hearts. / And then into the world we come / We’ve made good friends, and studied — some.”
These lyrics, to which Yalies drank and linked arms, are time capsules. Compare with our Yale, in which we do not always get A’s, but we know we must. That worry addles dating, leaving us little time to “act” said natural “parts.” We have lost the puckish delight in studying “some,” seeing studying as a crucial piece but just one piece of education, by which we come to know who we are, envisioning a better world, growing into adults.
A guest at Yale would encounter a community of people thrilled to be here, who genuinely care about one another. But he would meet at least one freshman who also shivered in awe at the frenzy around him, doubting his place within it. He would find a sophomore confronting the sheer continuousness of Yale studies and parties, begging for a rest. Our visitor would come upon a junior grappling with the year’s consequence, tempted by the possibilities of a semester off, wondering if this is how burnout’s first stage feels. He would meet a senior wading up to his dark-circled eyes in job interviews, or else planning to study Spanish in Argentina, to teach English in Japan — to do something completely different, for the first time in years.
This ratcheting-up expands beyond Yale. Last summer, I interned for Sen. Dianne Feinstein. One day, she invited her interns to lunch. We came from many schools — Yale, Berkeley, Santa Barbara — but when the senator asked about our future plans, many of us expressed one desire: time off. Sen. Feinstein finally said, “College is time off!”
What changed college to make it increasingly feel like something from which we desire time off? Students faced less competition before. Women, people of color, Catholics and Jews were severely disadvantaged. Higher education’s new diversity is wonderful and essential. Leaders of the ’60s and ’70s like Yale President Kingman Brewster did invaluable work, democratizing the collegiate world.
But Brewster also feared “grim pre-professionalism,” championing “the privilege of doubt.” It was too late. The students who heard these words went on to fuel the Reagan years’ culture of dizzying ambition, whose ladder-climbing impulse now feeds the burnout we students struggle to stave off.
Old Yale’s ideals were not mere luxuries, like summer homes. “Eli Yale” does not advise apathetic debauchery. It exclaims, “We’ve made good friends,” and that our discussions with them — with suitemates, in the Yale Political Union, at a Greek house — build our characters. They are even worth taking a lesser grade, if society lends its youth the margin for error to weather it.
Once, colleges emphasized urgency to revel in these pursuits in these four irretrievable years. When “into the world we come,” a befuddling explosion of challenges will assume we already spent our youth being young, allowing scant time to catch up.
There must be a pause before the journey. Before you can do and act, you must be someone. Otherwise, our actions have no reason. We have but assignments to complete and resumes to buff. The musical “Avenue Q” won our generation’s love by voicing our silent fear of purposelessness.
This mutation will follow us when we leave college. “Grim pre-professionalism” is in some ways hardest on its best pre-professionals. It scrapes away the serendipity, the willingness to risk failure, the understanding that life is long — the things that can lead to the greatest success and the most meaningful contributions to society.
Remedying this mutation must be a priority for collegiate history’s next period. American colleges have admirably opened their gates to free, diverse competition. The new challenge is to maintain — indeed, improve — this enterprising spirit, while reclaiming the wisely mellow soul of an earlier era. That way, we students may rejoice in the bounty of college’s fast-paced life, without letting it grind us down.
How might Yale lead the way? I will propose one plan in my next column.
Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.