Today’s Yale students come from more places — and from farther away — than any previous generation of Yalies. But more of us share a common culture, often called popular culture, than ever before. These dual phenomena create a Yale class that is at once more diverse and more the same.
Consider the traditional purpose of a Yale education: The production of a Yale Man has always been a man of decency, honesty, principle, intellect; he was balanced in the art and sciences; he was open to all arguments yet unafraid to reject specious falsehoods.
He took Yale’s academic rigors seriously, and took them in stride. Yale produced our nation’s Pericleses: Men who stood apart as leaders, who sough to eradicate their own ignorance, to become virtuous men, to rise above the fray as their nation’s first citizens.
Next, consider the mechanisms by which a Yale education creates a Yale Man (and now a Yale Woman). We have been told since we applied to Yale that the best part of her education would come from our fellow students. We were told that the greatest resource at Yale is her students, that we would learn more from our friends and peers than from our professors, our classes or our time in the stacks. I have no reason to believe that this was not true during Ezra Stiles’ tenure as president of Yale College.
Lastly, while much has changed at Yale, the school has maintained an impressive student body through the past three hundred and eight years. The curriculum has changed. New majors have been and are still added to the curriculum. The professions to which graduates of the University enter have also changed, with fewer going into the clergy and more off to Wall Street.
And of course the student body has a different constitution, more diverse in every definition of the word save quality.
All of us, wherever we’re from, now share a global popular culture. Of course there are national and regional flavors and distinctions, but there are important elements, themes and icons that we all know — references we all get.
Of course, this wasn’t true through much of Yale’s history. When Yale classes were made up of students primarily from the Northeast, students received education mainly from three sources: parents and home life, schooling, and the outside realms, including newspapers and other interaction. Though the first two may have imbued students from different parts of the country with similar values, the third often differed by region, town and even community.
In the past, America was a more provincial place than it is today. This cultural divide widened as students throughout America attended Yale. One cannot underestimate the differences in upbringing and exposure to ideas between John C. Calhoun 1804 and a classmate of his from New Jersey. Their schooling may have been comparable, but the cultural and parental differences that existed were larger than the ones that exist at Yale today.
Today, a student from New Jersey shares much in common with a student from New Mexico or New Zealand. Their paths to Yale were similar, with standardized tests and good grades the key to the Ivory Tower in our more egalitarian society. Their interests post-graduation are likely similar and likely not directed toward the clergy. And their shared culture — American culture — brings them together. A discussion between these two students will often go to familiar jokes or movies seen, or perhaps even politics, as these are topics of discussion that give us all a certain common knowledge.
This shared common knowledge — which exists with increased strength despite our increasing diversity — has shaped our Yale experience. I am aware of some of the effects of these trends, including the opportunity to begin relationships with more people than ever before, a familiarity with our surroundings that leads many people to call New Haven home, and a familiarity with professors who themselves share this knowledge.
As obvious and inevitable as this seems now, we must realize this is very new in our social history — and Yale’s history.
Adam Lior Hirst is a junior in Branford College.