The first few weeks of a new school year are a time for 11th-hour changed majors, for resigning yourself to the doldrums of required courses, for shifting into a new social circle, for throwing yourself with a will into extracurricular life or being laden with unasked-for responsibilities, and for figuring out what you’re doing here, anyway.
Every class shopped or dropped, every invitation taken up or turned down, every hour spent in the library or the gym is part of the answer to the question of what we hope to get out of our time at Yale.
The question is hard to avoid. Last Friday I lay on a couch in my common room, pretending to finish some class reading, and overheard a conversation about a suitemate’s friend’s difficult choice between two investment banks. After a brief supercilious snort at the careerism of it all, I was stricken with the humanities major’s perennial fear that my major was all wrong, my course selections misguided and my life careening along toward mediocrity.
There’s a special flavor of horror in second-guessing everything you’ve done over the past few years. But on a Friday night at Yale, a remedy for existential panic is always easy to find. And so in good time I was out with my friends for a night of stupid humor and repeated lines from movies and sake bombs and cigars.
As we rambled around town, no doubt there were some Yalies bent over problem sets and coursebooks. No doubt there were Yalies standing in bars or packed into dimly lit common rooms, groping for someone to love or at least to hold onto for a while, all dealing in their own way with the problem of what to do at college. But when the lyrics of “Bright College Years” suddenly started to run through my head, I had hit on my answer.
It’s a strange song, as college songs go. The words are the worst sort of 19th century poetic jargon, set to the tune of a German ode to war. The song is not about Yale’s delightful campus or long-lived traditions, nor, unlike so many college songs, does it express faith in the defeat of any team that challenges Eli on the field.
Instead it has a proleptic nostalgia about it, looking ahead to how much we’ll miss Yale once we’ve left, how after graduation, “when troubles rise/to cloud the blue of sunny skies,” the memory of time spent with friends at Yale will keep us going.
A lovely thought. But a thought from 1881: a different world and a different Yale, where the sons of the best families could fool around with Greek and Latin for a few years before riding their gentleman’s C’s to the helms of business and statecraft. For them, making friends at Yale (or in the argot of a technophile age, networking) was enough to get them going in life.
We can’t count on that. Friendship can’t raise our GPAs or line up key internships or do much of anything to impress the sophisters, economists and calculators who are the gatekeepers of success today. But we still get something from our friends: escape from the calculus of productivity and profitability by which the world judges us, and by which it’s all too easy to judge ourselves.
My mid-college crisis still isn’t solved. But the friendships I’ve made on this campus make it more difficult to be gloomy about the future. I may never shake off an extended sophomore slump, and nothing may come along to dissuade me of my inadequacy to my ambitions — but I’ve already got something out of Yale. I’ve met people whose company I love, from whom I’ve learned and on whom I can count to put up with me.
Whether forged in common-room banter, late-night debate or fiercely competitive MarioKart, friendships at Yale prove that college is something far greater than technical job training or profitless indulgence in the humanities. It’s easy to respect our classmates’ academic brilliance or soaring achievements in the arts, but sometimes all too hard to keep in mind that those aren’t the only things college is for.
That’s the lesson of “Bright College Years”: that long after we’ve forgotten most of what we learned at college, we’ll remember the people with whom we spent “the shortest, gladdest years of life”; that time passed with friends is never wasted time; that years spent at Yale are only really successful if enjoyed.
Last Friday night, though, was no time to be expatiating on the words of the song; it was a time for something more important than thinking or writing. And I had the good fortune to be among friends good enough to humor me and join in: “time and change shall naught avail/to break the friendships formed at Yale.”
We can hope, right?
Kevin Gallagher is a junior in Pierson College.