Last week, Yale announced that the class of 2016 had an acceptance rate of only 6.8 percent. In such an astonishingly competitive year, I can only imagine the great minds and talents coming into this school. However, I would hazard to guess — with a relative degree of confidence — that these students are not coming here because of New Haven.
The disparities of privilege between students and the residents of New Haven are immediately apparent, but we remain a socially conscious campus.
There would be a grave ethical problem if we actually behaved the way the Occupy narrative describes us: drinking single malt while lamenting the riffraff outside our Ivy League suites. So we are moved to do something. And this is a good thing. However, at times, this impulse can be misguided. The recent push to maintain the current borders of Ward 1 is an example of this error.
New Haven is in the process of redistricting, and Yale students have advocated for the preservation of the current Ward 1, which consists almost entirely of Yale students. The running argument for the student ward is that it helps Yale students become better citizens of New Haven. The student ward bridges a gap and allows us to engage with the citywide community. But we are citizens of New Haven no more than in name. We are guests. At its core, this is not actually our home. Playing at politics in a city that is only ours for four years is not the way Yale students should satisfy our inclination for civic service.
As a temporary student resident elected by temporary student residents, the aldermanic position plays directly on our proclivity for social engineering. New Haven becomes an exciting piece of clay, and here we have the chance, guided by the progressive ideas we learn around campus and in the classroom, to mold it.
The truth is that we are here and then we leave — be it for a summer or for good. Yet the outstretched hand from a man struggling on the street will still be there in June when we are at whatever internship or fellowship we have secured for ourselves in New York or London.
We will leave, but Yale remains. And it is through that grounded institutional presence that we can do our best to help New Haven.
Yale has a responsibility to New Haven. Now, I do not mean this in the way it is often invoked on campus, in that Yale needs to pay its fair share, hire a certain percentage of New Haven employees or the like. Instead, if the purpose of academia is to blend ideas and action, then a Yale education must involve the surrounding community.
The most troubling part of our commitment to a student ward is the increasingly popular outlook that we can, with the best intentions, fulfill our obligations to the community almost entirely by government service — that the bureaucracy can be an organ for charity and fulfillment.
Yale, from a position of perspective and reason, must guide and reorient those passions. With that spirit in mind, Yale should usher our attentions from the halls of government to the actual streets, schools and structures of New Haven.
Yale should not simply recognize this general appetite among its students; the school, aware of both its obligations to its undergraduates and surrounding community, needs to actively guide students’ existing inclinations. In addition to the 36 credits required for graduation, Yale should mandate a fixed amount of community service.
We should not be able to write laws for a world we have yet to sufficiently know. Sure, we can harmlessly and insufficiently muse about them in school papers, but that is too easy. Government is also too easy. It is insulated social service with the swipe of a pen.
Our college years are for experiencing firsthand the world that’s been given to us. It’s where we learn the virtues and traits we will apply later in life. Yale brands itself not just as an education but also as a mindset that extends from a student’s first class to his deathbed. Students need to experience volunteerism beyond the ballot box.
For Yale students, New Haven is neither a charity case nor a blight on our society. It is an opportunity for learning and growth at the highest form. The city provides a sobering perspective that can be a profound opportunity to better our student years. But it needs to be done in the right way, by service in the real community, not political maneuvering.
Harry Graver is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.