In my first foray into a life divided into semesters, I learned something that I’d like to believe many experience at the beginning of their Yale careers:
I was not as good at math as I thought.
I had taken BC calculus in high school, so I figured Math 115 shouldn’t have been too far off. Sometime within the first 15 minutes of the midterm, though, I realized that these were not the integrals of yesteryear; it is still unclear whether the problem was the material or my own ability. At the time, I dismissed it as a fluke.
Three years later, I found myself in the Jonathan Edwards basement inundated with tasks and deadlines. An underclassman and I commiserated on our collective inability to accomplish work in a timely manner and our general lack of confidence in current academic endeavors.
“But you’re a senior, he said. “Shouldn’t you have this down by now?”
“False,” I replied.
But his statement had some truth to it. Here I was, at the home stretch of a much coveted Yale education, and what did I have to show for it? After three-and-a-half years, shouldn’t I be able to tackle assignments with ease? After over 30 classes and all of my distribution requirements completed, I should feel like I know something about something — right?
Reflecting on his comment a few days later, I realized that I really did feel smarter in high school. I remembered the glory days of being able to roll off a quality paper in a matter of hours, tunneling through reading on a of couple of train rides while making it to tennis and debate practice on time. I remember being able to explain thoroughly what role the loop of Henle played in our nephritic system and what a t-statistic was in the same breath.
Now, I find myself no longer able (or willing, perhaps) to pull all-nighters. I agonize for hours about single sentences of papers. I can’t remember the difference between types of modes from introductry philosophy freshman year (sorry Professor Winkler).
You could call it burnout, but I don’t think it’s that simple. I just don’t feel smarter.
Of course, we see ourselves as compared to those around us, and since Yale’s got some pretty intelligent folks, we don’t feel as smart relative to our peers. Sometimes our confidence is shot by failing in subjects in which we once excelled. We let that self-consciousness seep in, and it becomes paralyzing. We second guess the theses we conjure up. We stop trusting ourselves.
Or maybe we actually lose skills during our time at Yale. A friend once told me that before coming to Yale, his principle told him: “This is the smartest you’ll be in your life. From here on out, you’ll only be a specialist, at best.” Sure, we’ve got distribution requirements, but for the most part, we’re allowed to learn to think only in certain ways. Largely by necessity, certain ways of thinking atrophy throughout our Yale careers because we have neither the venue nor the space in our Google calendars to exercise them. Or if we do, we fear what it will do to our GPAs.
But perhaps, I don’t feel smarter because my definition, like so many of my peers’, is premised on a notion of building oneself up in one’s own eyes or those of the world. From that perspective, intelligence is measured by the ability to produce or the stock of knowledge acquired as compared to those around us. In high school, this definition worked — I felt smart. Here, though, as in the rest of the world, these metrics miss pivotal elements of a successful Yale education.
I wanted to graduate from Yale superhuman, but instead I got the opposite. More than anything, my time at Yale has been a lesson in learning to be human. Throughout the last three years, I’ve become aware of all of the things I don’t know, but want to learn. I have found that it is impossible to do everything to the fullest extent all of the time, and that’s why we have to prioritize. I have learned to fail and then continue — , broken and hopefully in a better shape.
Maybe I don’t feel “smarter” per se, but I do feel like a more robust person. That’s something I can show for my Yale education.
Instead of judging ourselves by how smart we feel or how superhuman we can be, we ought to celebrate our lacks, our humanness — those spaces in us that we can fill with knowledge, experiences, and compassion. Then, we might learn something that is more difficult than the analysis of any literature, treatise or proof — humility.
Kristen Ng is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.