The other day I told a friend that I would be working as a staff columnist for the News this year. She responded: “Just please don’t start your columns with some cliché anecdote about what happened the other day. I hate that.”
I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist, and I hope you’ll forgive the meta-ing (as I’m sure the ranting commenters on the News’ online edition will not). It’s hard to start a column. Maybe that’s borne of a crisis of conscience, or of confidence: How can I convince Joe Commons-Reader to give precious attention to the opining of a student soapboxer with no discernible qualification, no claim to wisdom or insight greater any other Yalie?
And even disregarding the value of the particular opinion-of-the-week, the manner in which the argument is framed can often leave one heading to the trash can, News at the ready. I, for one, don’t enjoy reading News columns written in the voice of a faux-Aristotle (or Michael Moore), nor do I like being maligned for being a Yalie, white-person, American, hipster, or all of the above.
There is a certain quixotic quality to we columnists; we believe we live in a world in which we are of consequential importance. We tilt at windmills, pouring passion onto the page, chuckling at our own brilliance, while readers raise their eyebrows and continue coasting, unmoved and skeptical, through their days.
But our dilemma is more fundamental: Do our opinions even matter? Are the fiercely defended ideas of a Yale Daily News columnist as flimsy and inconsequential as the recycled paper upon which they compete for space?
As I hate the answer “yes and no,” I’ll give you a shorter one: yes. Our writing may amuse, entertain and even spark a conversation or two. But it won’t effect the changes for which we argue, nor will it move hearts or minds in the way that many a misguided columnist intends (and expects). In fact, precedent shows us that when a column makes a real impact on Yale’s campus, oftentimes it does so in precisely the opposite way to which the author intended. The most talked-about pieces in this section are usually the ones that are most negatively received, that provoke the most resistance.
But, perhaps due to new-columnist naïveté, I think there’s more to the story — or obviously, you would not be reading this. (Then again, are you?) There is a utility or point to opinions writing, and, fundamentally, it’s not to effect change in practice or thought. Writing and reading opinions, like almost everything else we do at Yale, is a different — and just as important — pursuit: it’s practice.
A published opinion, like all those on this page, puts one’s views, writing style, even oneself, under the harsh, often unforgiving light of public review. It’s hot out here. We are not writing for professors and employers, but rather for one another. Thus, we treat any and all failures of judgment or forays into pretension unforgivingly. But such criticism is as valuable as it is stinging. From it we learn how to effectively communicate in a far more important language than that of elevated academic erudition: the language of our peers.
Reading and responding to opinions (I’m looking at you, ranting Web site commenters), is an even more vital form of practice. After we move from college to the much-mythologized “real world,” we will live, speak and act in a realm where our peers are the movers and shakers. Can any of us begin to imagine what it would be like to have a president of our own generation? How about a boss? A favorite author? We are on the verge of “mattering” far more than we ever have before.
In college, by reading the often misguided but always passionate opinions of a fellow student, we engage with a wholly unique public sphere, more intimate, personal, relevant and, in many ways, valuable than the one found in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: our own.
In short, the utility of a published opinion resides in the common ground that reader and writer share. Opinion journalism gives us a small but important way of participating in our generation’s (and Yale’s) unique ebb and flow of ideas and sentiments. There is an inherent value to the uniquely common tongue that any community shares; after all, we don’t read our local newspaper just for gripping, hard-hitting farmers’ market reporting.
This column won’t end up on Obama’s desk, but it will find itself in front of more people who are much more like me. A News column cannot change powerful, global minds, or do powerful, global things. But it can engage us both, reader and writer, in a contextually meaningful back-and-forth of ideas; something that, today — in a world drowning in meaningless or venomous blog posts and Glenn Beck imitators — we should remember to appreciate.
I hope to write not as an arrogant oracle or pompous lecturer. Rather, these columns will serve as my practice, as a thinker, writer and listener, and as a member of a community that is filled with thousands of the same — remarkable ones at that. As Mark Twain wrote in “The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “Training is everything.” And finally, as he continued, “cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”
Alex Klein is a sophomore in Davenport College.