Contrary to popular belief, Al Gore did not invent the Internet. The history of the Internet, in fact, is devoid of future vice presidents, barred from the kind of “Social Network”-style mythology that would otherwise separate truth from myth.
I know little about the history of the Internet; freshman year at Yale, it seems, can’t teach you everything. But I do know — thanks to a strange, serendipitous confluence of current events — that a man by the name of Tim Berners-Lee figures prominently in the narrative. The man bears many suffixes, many degrees and many accomplishments, but he recently became a television star, too, having performed in the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics. There, on a dark stage, the inventor of the World Wide Web wrote a single tweet and broadcast it to the world, its contents written in flashing light on the walls of the arena itself.
“This,” read the lights in the stadium, “is for everyone.”
This is for everyone. This ceremony, this Olympics — this miraculous invention known as the Internet — is for all of humanity: no quotas, no restrictions, no barriers based on color or creed. “Everyone” is beautifully inclusive, and “this” is beautifully ambiguous.
Yale is nothing like the Internet, though it does bring together people from all over the world in a serendipitous confluence of classes, clubs and communities. Yale is a physical place, full of traditions and sensations and experiences that can only be experienced outside the confines of a backlit screen. But Tim Berners-Lee was on to something, I think. Yale is for you — it’s a beautiful privilege and a gift you have rightly earned — but you, I hope, will one day be for everyone.
Yale is for you. You are, first and foremost, the master of your own destiny. You don’t have some pre-planned course schedule or some designated lights-out — the latter, I imagine, much to the administration’s chagrin.
There’s no roadmap to guide you. You will have friends and mentors — plus a litany of professors and advisers, masters and deans. But even Dante had to leave Virgil behind; after Wizard’s Chess and the potions puzzle, first-year Harry faced Voldemort alone. Indeed, the hallmark of your Yale experience will be the freedom you have in shaping it.
Want to pick up a new language, or try your hand at computer science? Go right ahead. Want to experiment with African dance, or a cappella music, or intramural sports? Be my guest. Want to pursue the passions you’ve already cultivated, and take your musicianship, sportsmanship or scholarship to the next level? You can do that, too. You have four years at Yale, babies, and today you enter our door tabulae rasae. You’re a blank slate: Savor it.
You’ve earned the right to experiment, to challenge yourself, to fail. Yale makes no mistakes, they say, and they’re right; you’ve earned the right to be here: You built that! The creative energy that propelled you to Yale did not die the day you graduated from high school, but curfews and AP classes fortunately did. You’re free. Make the most of it.
You are babies in this world, freshmen. You are full of new energy and life. But Yale is old, older than us both—older than my family’s history in America and America itself. And Yale is bigger than all of us, it can seem. Our traditions are larger-than-life, our campus grandiose, our Science Hill insurmountable. And like all old, beautiful things, Yale has made mistakes. It has been on the wrong side of history. It has had — and will continue to have — faults. Continue to love Yale, but remember this: to love Yale is to challenge it, even if spending a semester studying abroad in a small Asian city-state seems especially awesome.
And remember this, too: We are fortunate to attend a place that will challenge us and let us challenge it — that will hone our skills, sharpen our minds and expand our networks. We are individuals, certainly not guaranteed to make a difference. But be ambitious, freshmen. It could happen.
And to make a difference is to be for everyone.