Dear Professor E.,
I thought of you during Parents’ Weekend, and not just because my visiting folks kept me from studying. You taught me to look at today’s world with an eye toward history, and so I thought of you as I walked my parents around the pseudo-Gothic courtyards of Branford and Saybrook meant to look centuries older than they are. When they were built, Yalies criticized these courtyards.
In the 1930s, undergraduate Harlan Hale referred to the then newly built Sterling Memorial Library as a “monument of lifelessness and decadence” in a publication called the Harkness Hoot. I would hoot against him. Yale’s beauty is ennobling; I try to write beautifully at Sterling because I am surrounded by beauty. (My papers for your class are written in my less ennobling room, where I am surrounded by dirty laundry, but never mind.) It is the very opposite of lifeless; it is timeless.
Not without reason is this verse written by James Thompson carved upon Sterling’s walls: “There studious let me sit/ And hold high converse with the mighty dead.” If I cannot converse with Virgil, I can at least gaze into the corner and wonder how many other undergraduates have looked there, unable to converse with Virgil.
Yale’s dark corners are full of ghosts. These ghosts represent the limitless possibilities of late-night philosophy with one’s studies and one’s suitemates, and the generations that have argued the same questions.
Professor, they are killing the ghosts.
Yale, as always, is making herself anew. Once more, Silliman College shines, Lords and Commons dining hall on one side, Timothy Dwight and downtown on the other, the proud mediator of Slifka and Science Hill. I love it. But the basement has been done according to the soulless Bank of America style. Mr. Hale might have loved the modernity, but he surely would have hated the decadence: big screen TVs, brand new pool tables, steel and glass and conspicuous consumption. The style of the anti-crime. The glass reminds me of the glass enclosures around ATMs to prevent you from getting mugged.
The Wall Street gates of Silliman, so recently a heavy, dull wood more reminiscent of medieval town walls than 21st century globalization, were replaced overnight by metal gates even more aesthetically modern than the others in the college. Undoubtably, it is safer for us to see the street and the street to see us. But the whole affair smacks of Yale’s seemingly relentless efforts to relevance, for her curriculum to be Chinese, for her extracurriculars to be financial, for her architecture not to stand, as one old book put it, in an armed truce with New Haven, but in seamless integration with it. How can we justify Gothic castles set off by a moat from our municipal hosts?
Sometimes I think I am the only one who, thrown out of that impractical, lifeless library at 2 a.m. on freshman-year Thursday evenings, head swimming with the impossibility of understanding the ancients, crossed campus and College Street, and saw the lights on at Scroll and Key and those at St. Anthony Hall. Entering under Silliman’s tower, I saw the red brick of the Temple St. wall and the city looming behind it and thought: this is my college, in New Haven but not of it, to borrow a phrase. Literally, within the four walls of Mother Yale I can look from a distance at the world, not with disdain, but with all the love that you and your colleagues lavish on your subjects of study.
College is only justifiable if it is a place from which to observe the world, perhaps to criticize it. This increasingly global world, where every action is tied to another, needs a place apart to observe both the good and the bad. Otherwise, Yale is just a decadent substitute for living in China, or in Manhattan, or in Fair Haven.
You, professor, who teaches me about the great men and their ideas that changed the world, do well to preserve the niceties of collegiate life: the dress, the manners, the books. You maintain an aesthetic consciously different, even dissonant, from the ever-shifting world.
Our parents might laugh as we show them the dozens of diamond-laden squash courts or list the limitless funding that our roommates get for this or that. Yet, they revere the college library, with its classic appointments of wood and carpet and old books, and ghosts who live in the corners, whispering into our ears that, just maybe, some things should not change.
Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.