Click go two hundred laptops, zip go two hundred backpacks and fizz goes the tiny space in one Yale professor’s mind where he once harbored hope, optimism and a profound belief in the importance of education. The scene: the final minute of a popular Yale College lecture. As two hundred students noisily prepare for the mass exodus to Commons, a distinguished professor stands at the lectern delivering an almost inaudible call to action.
The students file out as the professor concludes with the final words of Margaret Mead’s famed exhortation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It strikes me that somewhere, such a group exists — it’s just that no one here is a part of it.
I could reflect on the startling lack of perspective displayed by these Yale students, on the years of experience, research and thought squandered for an extra 30 seconds of time. I could point out that just minutes before the conclusion of the lecture, the screen displayed an image of pixel earth (our planet as viewed from space), a shot intended to promote perspective and humility in its viewers. In short, I could stir myself up for a holy war against ye heathens and philistines. I could, but whether or not small groups of people change the world, one thing is certain: no undergraduate’s pedantic editorial ever has. As such, and in the spirit of a sunny spring day after midterms, I instead look forward optimistically, and propose a practical, if unexpected, solution: mandatory public speaking classes.
The idea is simple and age-old: take a walk in the other man’s shoes; in this case, invert the student-teacher relationship. Perhaps the anxiety of the experience, the clammy hands and the parched throat, would foster a heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the work done by Yale’s professors and quash the apathy and closed-mindedness of formerly Facebook-surfing students. Obviously, I do not advocate an authoritarian submission or sacred reverence for professors. Critical thinking and dialogue form the crucible of intellectual development. However, it seems to me that a heightened level of courtesy and respect fits with Yale’s goal of fostering a congenial, respectful intellectual community.
Ideally, the influence of this proposal would not be limited to professor-student interactions. Rather, it would pervade the entire campus atmosphere and cling to students beyond graduation. In the exhausting rush and grind of college life, students are often caught in a cycle of private work and public play. As the work load increases, Yale students are more likely to bog down in a dense, insular intellectual world. Obviously, to stop here would be a profound exaggeration and mischaracterization of the entire Yale community. One must recognize the dozens of master’s teas, panels, student events, and lively discussions occurring each week on campus as evidence of Yale’s thriving intellectual life.
Yet, while students energetically pursue outside, extracurricular interests, course-based intellectual life often becomes a private affair. The explanation, in part, stems from the nature of academic work. Writing, reading and test-taking are, after all, individual activities. Public speaking, on the other hand, is necessarily social.
Of course, the personal nature of coursework does not explain why students are rarely heard bringing a discussion from section back to the dining hall. This phenomenon of intellectual compartmentalization may be related to popular conceptions of cool, as described in the so-called “duck effect.” The duck effect analogizes student behavior to the swimming style of a duck, in which the calm visible portion obscures the furious paddling beneath. In short, students maintain a public perception of intellectual apathy and ‘cool,’ while secretly booking away into the wee hours.
Enter oratory. Classes in public speaking could enliven Yale’s academic community by providing an opportunity within the curriculum for students to observe and discuss the work of their peers. While promoting a relevant life skill, these courses might simultaneously vanquish disrespect towards professors and the privatization of curricular life. At the very least, the classes would promote hard work and a deeper understanding of the material. The fear of social embarrassment is a well-proven prod, and there must be something to the adage that you never truly understand a subject until you’ve taught it.
So, as you pack your bags for Cancun, Tahiti or Djibouti, don’t let the sound of your luggage zippers transport you back to that Yale lecture hall, that unheeded exhortation, those dying neurons. Rather than ruminate over past incidents, instead envision the great improvement potentially bestowed upon our campus by this, my proposal. And, if you’re not shipping out to the “hottest” communal tanning bed, then keep it in perspective. You’re only half a pixel away.
Tyler Borek is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.