Last week, I was finally introduced to the music of the up-and-coming New York band Harlem Shakes, most of whose members are Yale ’06, and it reminded me of a Robert Frost poem. The comparison wasn’t artistic, but biographical. As I thought about how fantastic it was that this handful of Yalies decided to go into indie rock rather than consulting, I was reminded of the oft-quoted last stanza of Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud-Time,” the one that begins: “But yield who will to their separation, / My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight.” I concluded wistfully that the Shakes were living the dream.
As romantic as I find the Beinecke-to-Bowery story, however, the band does its best to hide its roots, and with good reason: One blogger I read admitted that he “liked them less” after learning they were from Yale (though the music eventually won him over). The “children of leisure” image that clings to the Ivy League is still a liability, despite the fact that in an age of ever-improving financial aid policies it is less than accurate. In a more literal sense of “leisure,” however, it is still true: We Yale students get to spend much of our time doing what we want.
This is not to imply that we have less work than students at other colleges. But as young people defined by our intellectual passions, as the admissions office insists we are, we’re supposed to enjoy it. From what I’ve seen, this is about half true. We enjoy learning; we just don’t enjoy schoolwork. When intellectual stimulation becomes the “daily grind” of academic rigor, we slog through it as we would any standard nine-to-five desk job. We subvert this system, from “pregaming section” to climbing East Rock instead of writing a paper, and we use terms of endearment such as “shitshow” to refer to those who break the rules of academic discipline more often than they follow them.
Any residential college dean will tell you, of course, that this behavior undermines our broader purpose of learning, but most of our mistakes carry penalties no more severe than an unsatisfying grade and feelings of regret. In other contexts, the consequences of self-undermining behavior are much more dire. The actions of William White, the former NHPD narcotics officer recently arrested for conspiracy and theft, are obviously on a graver scale than a few missed Friday lectures. But the story is newsworthy not merely because White committed crimes, but because he did so as a police officer, fundamentally undermining his job.
For those who have no intention of becoming police officers (or clergymen), a career does not carry such a heavy moral burden, and there is no need to have professional ideals and practices control one’s life completely. But the notion of morally devoting oneself to one’s work has nonetheless crept into general campus perceptions of respective careers. Choosing a career for money rather than love — a failure to unite avocation and vocation — is condemned as “selling out”; I-bankers and the aforementioned consultants are prime targets. Professions that are less profit-driven but still common, such as think-tank work, are still regarded as less than ideal because they are conventional. With a student body characterized by such diverse talent, it is easy to assume that each student, if he tried, could find a job uniquely suited to his passions and avoid these well-traveled paths.
But if we don’t always do our work in college — work ostensibly in the service of something we love — why is it so important that our work suit us perfectly once we graduate? We rarely express envy toward undergraduates who spend all their time cloistered in Sterling, no matter how much they enjoy it. It is quixotic of us to be proud of our diverse interests at college and yet seek some future “calling” that will unite all the things we enjoy and pay us for it. Conversely, we should not assume that a “traditional” job will fail to engage any of our myriad passions.
The poet here is not Frost, but Walt Whitman, who wrote: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, I contradict myself; / I am vast, I contain multitudes.” Self-contradiction itself is not to be prized; that way lies corruption and William White. But there is a meaningful distinction between corruption and avocation, between undermining work and simply separating it from the rest of life. Automatically condemning those who choose conventional careers over “living the dream” glosses over much of this distinction, ignoring the multitudes each person may contain.
This doesn’t take anything away from Harlem Shakes; I still envy them. But for many of the rest of us, doing what we love may not be as meaningful as simply loving what we do.
Dara Lind is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.