Everywhere I go people ask me what Yale is like. I always reply, “It’s paradise.” As I contemplate my imminent expulsion, the metaphor seems particularly apt. The work isn’t backbreaking. God, country and Yale love and indulge us. Nubile young things are just across the hall, and free libidinal play is, I am told, easy to come by. Intoxicating fruits surround us, and none are yet known to be forbidden. We can even dash through the library naked with impunity. Every residential college is a garden; 10 of them are breathtaking; and others tend them before we wake up.
What I’ve best learned from Yale is how to have a conversation. That statement would be little comfort to impoverished parents or selective employers, but I’m convinced it’s the most important thing there is. Our most important acts, exchanging selves, finding out who other people are, helping them understand us, deciding how to live and be just, can only be done with words and other minds — conversation. It’s imperfect, but all we have.
The value of a liberal arts education is that it refines these tools for our own use by letting us converse with the best minds — ever. What I’ve most loved at Yale is having them with students, professors and dead white men. I would accept a few more hangovers, and a weaker resume, for more of those, and I would give up all the classes I knew I wouldn’t love. I’ve loved the Great Books, but they only became important to me because of the young, interesting and interested minds that lived and drank with me.
And I’ve loved my time at Yale, not just for Yale but for a city. When I first arrived, I talked about how I disliked New Haven because that’s what everybody was saying and I never looked at it with my own eyes. But I’ll miss running up West Rock, along the coast, and through Wooster Square. I’ll miss the way the whole American experience seems to converge in one little city. We still have Italian neighborhoods, a few manufacturing jobs and even a port. On the New Haven Green, the unluckiest — the neglected urban poor, from ravaged neighborhoods down Whalley, and some completely homeless — walk on the same paths as the luckiest, the unfairly privileged bright young things: us.
We, as Yalies, are part of the new aristocracy. I say this in the spirit of confession rather than self-congratulation. Privilege and status are, I think, the things most likely to hold us back. Our problem is our illusion of meritocracy, an illusion that feeds the national political divide. When Yale was an old boys’ club, the one good thing was that the old boys realized they were old boys. They knew the prejudices of the ruling class were just that — prejudices. They therefore had a sense of irony about their own ideas and values, and looked on others not with contempt, but a feeling of obligation and regret over the vagaries of fortune.
Today, “populist” is a term of derision among us. That’s telling. The people, no doubt, go wrong. But, all else equal, popularity should be a boon in a democratic society. But we often see only prejudice and willful stupidity in the people — after all, we have raised ourselves so very far above them. So, the popularity of a cause becomes the condition of its denigration.
A wise friend told me an insult tells you more about the insulter than the insulted. Yalies rarely insult, but when we do, it tells me that we no longer consider ourselves privileged, lucky and deeply indebted — just better. And handsomer, morally superior and smarter.
Indulge this assertion in my final column: We’re not, but we are very lucky. My advice for those leaving Yale is to keep an ironic detachment, a hefty skepticism, of the communities of which you will be a part. Remember that leadership of any kind — as a journalist, political hack, community organizer or business manager — is senseless if you don’t know whom you’re leading. Our creativity and our intelligence give us, as our resumes advertise, “leadership potential.” But our privilege can undermine it. Remember that the modern Yalie is a strange chimera — half boy genius, half good-old boy.
Perhaps I sound political here. Certainly, my political heresies have informed my experience of and thoughts about Yale. When I circulate with New York’s right-wing conspiracy, old curmudgeons will ask me if Yale is very leftist. I reply, smirking at the counterintuition, that it’s disappointingly conservative.
No doubt, social progressivism is requisite for admission into our generation. But with a few very interesting exceptions, the old-left radicalism is the preserve of tweedy professors, not the students. A member of the Party of the Left is now more likely to work for a hedge fund than a labor union after graduation. Nobody burns the classics, and we’d mostly be glad to have ROTC back if DADT goes. Class warfare is fun to talk about in a lit seminar, but rarely informs our lifetime ambitions. But we’re certainly not embracing Mother Church or attending Tea Parties either. Perhaps it’s indicative of our privilege, or perhaps it’s part of the general moderation of our times. We are lukewarm; our only strong belief is in the falseness of strong belief.
Radicalism can be harmful, but moderation can make our conversations less interesting. If there’s one thing I’ve lamented at Yale, it is 19-year olds who are already aiming for bourgeois respectability, when they should be exploring, enjoying time in the wilderness. Screw that. Join weird clubs. Take weird classes. Write weird columns for the News that might make potential employers reject you — if they can’t tolerate an eccentric point well-made, you don’t want to work for them anyways. And using interesting words to say interesting things is, I am convinced, the substance of a life well lived.
Or I certainly hope so. I’ve decided to try to make a career as a writer, and I think it’s because I don’t want to leave Yale — the early dawn conversations, the parliamentary debates and the commenters. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to hold on to these four years, the people, the experiences, the thoughts, the feeling that conversations about ideas were the most important commitments in the world. But my four years are up. There is no revenge against time, and I doubt Yale will have me back again. The world is all before us, now. We’ll, “hand in hand with wandering steps, and slow through Eden” take our solitary way.
I only hope we can take something of Yale with us.
Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.