On its website, the Yale Admissions Department promises “education and enlightenment” along with a commitment “to the idea of a liberal arts education.” When a Yale student can receive a degree with a humanities experience consisting only of “Vikings” and “The Beatles, Dylan and the 60s,” what Yale claims to offer is actually a choice instead of a guarantee.
To be clear, I have nothing against the two courses. I have heard fantastic things and very well may attempt to take both. However, I doubt that “enlightenment” can come from such a scant (if any) introduction to Western foundational ideas and thinkers.
One may point out that this is simply the fault of the student. If a student does not choose to take full account of Yale’s resources, it is his own fault. Furthermore, who cares? A student’s education is his or her own choice.
Yale lets students make that choice without much guidance. Distributional requirements are broad and largely undefined so students can “expand on individual interests, explore new curiosities, and take academic risks.” The proliferation of choice and the restraint of mandates are both well in accordance with Yale’s goal of academic freedom. However, this near-unrestrained freedom is an onerous and stunting burden on the student body.
More important than the immense power given to the individual student is the idea that students deserve such power. The very nature of this absolute commitment to choice is not simply a rejection of institutional authority; it is a surrender on the part of the institution. It is impossible to respect or revere the wisdoms, values and traits of an institution — especially one as grounded in our national history as Yale — when it presents itself as a mutable entity to be uniquely designed in each iteration.
Further down on its website, the Admissions Department pledges that a Yale education “instills in its students the values” that will (along with other traits) lead to “successful and meaningful lives.” But with such structural latitude bestowed upon students, this process lacks any definitive formula or objective trait.
Truly, at what point does instillation of values occur? Certainly, Yale does not explicitly inculcate its students with expounded morals. We have heard countless times about Yale’s individuality, acceptance, multiculturalism and the like. Tolerance is considered the highest virtue because of the very fact that it does not define virtue.
These potentially instilled values are not instruments of any moral discernment. They simply mean a strong belief or opinion held by the student. However, there is a troublesome and cyclical nature to this pedagogy.
If the purpose of an education is to instill a student with values, but a student is free to choose his course of study based on whatever values, beliefs, understandings he has beforehand, education becomes at best insular self-empowerment and at worst self-indulgence.
Yale defines a liberal arts education as one “literally liberating and freeing the mind to its fullest potential.” With this understanding, education is not a guide, but an infinite number of arenas with no two exactly alike and with none better or worse than any other. But from what really are we liberating them?
Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman poet Lucretius composed a rather lengthy letter to his friend Memmius entitled De Rerum Natura. Lucretius said the purpose of education is to unbind students from “delusions” — social norms or religious precepts that weigh upon individuals. These delusions are lofty, abstract social constructions ultimately conjured up and meaningless.
With his highest goal being self-defined personal pleasure, Lucretius, although largely forgotten from our curricula, matches our school’s educational philosophy. Fundamentally, Yale subtly leads us to be satisfied and concerned only with the mortal world.
Inextricably linked to the cult of individuality is an embrace of a quasi-academic agnosticism. When one is given the tools almost exclusively to deconstruct, he is without the ability to develop and maintain values. More importantly, having never encountered intellectual institutional authority, one lacks the disposition to accept and defer to societal precepts.
The social sciences cultivate a moral metric defined by statistics (median income, social mobility, etc.) rather than any transcendent metric. In matters of political philosophy, moral foundations are solely grounded in the reason of man, and invocations of God are treated as intellectual foils rather than potential truths.
This is not to say Yale must propagandize. But, in the spirit of a true liberal arts education, it must take a more active and good faith effort to expose students to crucial tenets of humanistic thought. Yale would benefit greatly from true requisites, mainly ancient and modern political philosophy along with a theological, nonsecular history of Western religious tradition.
It is the duty of an institutional authority to represent a moral compass, even if students ignore or disagreed with it. Instead of asking, “What would you like to learn?” a university should turn to its students and say, “You’re not even old enough to buy a beer — what do you really know?”
Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.