Over three years ago, toward the beginning of freshman year, I forewent the luxury of sleeping in one Friday and instead sequestered myself in the Chapel Street Starbucks, where I spent 40 minutes paging through that day’s New York Times. I had some idea of what I was going to find: I’d heard offhand comments about a hurricane that had done some pretty bad damage, but nothing had been discussed seriously enough to stick.
Once I was removed (believe me, Starbucks seemed “off-campus” at the time) from the glorious whirlwind of Yale’s opening days, the full magnitude of what I’d been missing struck me: One of America’s largest and most significant cities had been completely destroyed, or at least damaged beyond recognition and without any hope for quick recovery.
It seems bizarre, looking back, that Katrina wasn’t a central topic of conversation on campus, even among us callow freshmen. Not just because it was a tragedy of immense proportions; not just because it heralded the unraveling of the mystique surrounding the Bush presidency (something else that I didn’t figure out until months after it happened); but because we’re so much more tuned in now — as the next national crisis unfolds.
I’m aware that it’s not appropriate to compare the collapse of the New Orleans levies in 2005 with the collapse of the credit markets in 2008 as far as relevance to Yale life is concerned. The former was geographically contained, distant and, let’s face it, wracked the most devastation on people who don’t resemble the skin color or income bracket of most undergrads here. (In fairness, after the waters receded, Yalies got involved in the recovery efforts.) By contrast, there’s much more incentive to “stay on top of” a news saga that (with the travails of the investment banks) had an outsized impact on the hiring prospects of the stereotypical Yale upperclassman.
The point, however, is not the motivation but the consequences: at the end of the day, the 1-2 punch of presidential election and financial meltdown has turned this campus into a place where the news matters much more than it did a year ago. I don’t just mean this in the sense of idle conversation, but rather an understanding that news, even bad news, isn’t just something that happens to other people. And that’s an attitude we’ve suffered from, even courted, for a long time.
We certainly don’t pick our actions, at school or after, with an eye toward making news. Maybe this is because our immediate experiences with national media have conferred a stigma upon newsworthiness: No one wants to be the next Aliza Shvarts. But have we erred too far in the other direction, eschewing relevance entirely?
While Yale stakes its reputation on grooming its graduates for world domination (even if we’re about to lose our lock on the American presidency), it seems to me that current students deliberately try to pick paths that are at best quietly influential and, at worst, comfortably insulated from the “risky” turbulence of major issues. (The fact that hedge-fund recruiters boast about how they “outsmart the market,” meaning that the Yalies they hire will get rich even if everyone else in the market is losing their shirts, strikes me as smug to the point of callousness.)
This isn’t to say that the Yale Sustainable Food Project and Teach for America don’t remake the world. In fact, the human scale on which they do effect change may in fact be more effective — after all, the saying is “Think globally, act locally.” But at Yale, that dichotomy may not even need to exist; the institution’s influence stretches far beyond the local. Academically, we acknowledge this — the Faith and Globalization initiative only adds more evidence that Yale has cornered the market on globalization. (See also the Macmillan Center, the oversubscribed International Studies major, etc.) In light of what we study, our determination to limit our actions to an un-newsworthy scale seems less prudent than parochial. Why hasn’t the renewed focus on Russia and Eastern Europe spurred Yale to reinvest in the (skeletal) department studying that area? Why isn’t there a YSFP-PAC?
Perhaps foolishly, I’m hoping the alarm of the financial crisis will serve as a wake-up call to us to start thinking on a more influential scale. The bubble has become a permeable membrane, and I’m thrilled — not because I like market crises but because relevant issues seem to have broken their unholy non-aggression pact with us. They’ve started encroaching upon our lives; we might as well start to get in on them, in a big way.
Dara Lind is a senior in Branford College. Her columns run on alternate Fridays.