It’s taken me five months, but now I can admit it: I love the new Bass Library. Everyone does. The place is always packed. You walk in and find a trendy café waiting for you, with all of your friends there somehow. Each has her iPod and his organic coffee. Each has a book on Chinese politics in one hand, a pen in the other and is flirting with an attractive student across the table. If you really want, you can go into the library itself: sleek corners, grand stairs, shining wood, studious silence. I’ve even heard of professors descending into that brand new cave in order to study with the undergrads until a quarter to two. Throw on a Yale hoodie, grab a book, cultivate a worried but not stressed expression and you blend right in.
But something is a bit off. Maybe it’s the architecture. My friends in-the-know tell me that Bass isn’t beautiful, it’s derivative: too many architectural themes and too few new ideas. I’m always a little suspicious of architecture majors, who claim to love the Art and Architecture building, but, in this case, I see their point. “Look, it’s Yale!” the bookshelves scream. “We have wood and iPods and everything!” I believe those book shelves, even if no one has gotten around to putting books on them yet. If wood and iPods don’t say Yale, what does?
We Yalies have very little in common. Sure, we can talk about our colleges, our laptops, our friends who went to your high school. None of this separates us from students at any other Ivy: We have no Yale-specific curriculum, no single hang-out, no one beloved professor.
The times have changed from when the title “Yale Man” meant something specific, and the same thing for everyone. We’ve rid “Yale” of the old meaning: the racism, the senseless elitism, the religious dogmatism. But not only that. Today, the prevailing mood on campus insists that Yale means different things for different people; we no longer concede that “Yale Man” points to a uniform type. Uniformity is dangerous, the mood says, so we need to abolish uniformity completely. I suggest instead that we converse about what it should mean to be a Yale Man, whether curricular, social, ethical or whatever; I’ll write about the best ideas that you send to me.
Other campuses sense their own problems of uniformity. Princeton students, for example, often talk about how freshman year is one long hell of thinking that all anyone does is go to The Street, home of Princeton’s famous eating clubs. There is no other game in town. So Princeton built a fancy student center right in the middle of campus. Yale, whatever the parallel to The Street would be, does have other options, but built a student center anyway, and didn’t tell anyone. Yale called it a library: not a terrible thing to have as a central experience. Rather academic, in fact. We value that sort of thing here. (University of Chicago, eat your heart out.) In the space where we once found a gradation from talk-like-it’s-Friday-afternoon to MCATs-are-tomorrow-I-just-remembered-silence, now we find a pretty clear divide: café or silence.
But the silence inside the library echoes our silence about what it signifies: There is a specific Yale experience after all, whether or not we choose to define it. Yale seems to prefer that we choose not to. Never mind why our curriculum is structured the way it is; never mind why the university totalled a whole library just to build a new one. These questions take on the Yale experience too directly, and we don’t talk about that, remember? Instead, slip on your iPod, fill up your Nalgene, do a little reading and chill. Drink your organic coffee and savor what is decidedly inorganic: an artificial environment that pretends it has no artist. The student in Bass Library is the Yale Man today. We haven’t gotten rid of him. He just doesn’t go by that anymore.
So I ask you: Do we want to cultivate the best from our 300 years of tradition, or do we want to wipe our memories clean and be of the upper-middle-class like everyone else? Because where words lack meaning, commerce provides one. We can choose not between a maybe helpful and maybe detrimental meaning of “Yale Man” or “Yale Woman,” as the case may be; it’s between defining that term ourselves or letting the market do it for us. Let’s not pretend that Bass isn’t a center of campus, and let’s not pretend that there is no meaning to ‘Yale.’ To be a Yalie is to consume more than conspicuously. It is iPods, sweatshirts, sustainable food and studying next to a professor, beside empty bookshelves, in silence.
Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.