We’ve been seduced: by a 6.8 percent acceptance rate, by the extracurricular bazaar and by the career fair. Most of all, we’ve been seduced by Tony Blair and Stanley McChrystal. We’ve been convinced, whether we ever think of ourselves in these terms or not, that we are, to use a phrase once employed to describe my high school, the “joyful elite;” that we are engaged, that we are passionate and that we are on our way to careers of real worth and standing.
We’ve been seduced — and we’ve been silenced.
Yesterday afternoon, Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in the Political Science Department, spoke to a seminar-sized group of students about what he terms “the corporatization of Yale.”
In Sleeper’s account, the University, in pursuing legitimate ends such as global engagement and fundraising, has been caught in a tide overwhelming all academia. Yale has been carried away from the values that undergird its educational mission, towards a model of opaque authority that treats students as customers.
While Sleeper’s critique focuses on the Yale administration, he contends that corporatization has also crept into the student body. Students ingratiate themselves to authority figures and take care not to jeopardize their eventual senatorial prospects. But the confusion about the purpose of the University runs deeper: Too often, we at Yale forget that we came here because we are intellectual omnivores.
We prioritize the extracurricular over the curricular. We are overwhelmed as freshmen by the number of organizations in Payne Whitney — most genuinely interesting, most of genuine value. Nothing wrong with that: Yale really is one of the few places on Earth where so many smart, motivated people are together in one place.
Yet somewhere between being swept away by the energy of our peers and the feeling of obligation to do great things with our lives, we develop unctuous habits of mind and action. We seek to distinguish ourselves within a narrow conception of professional success, prizing high grades over challenging courses, default subjects of study over those that might truly interest us and e-board meetings over office hours. These habits draw us away from the very reason Yale attracts us in the first place: academic excellence.
In short, we come to feel that what sets us apart from the rest of the world — those who didn’t get in — isn’t our intellectual prowess but what we surely will accomplish as alumni. Intrinsic motivation is crowded out by the extrinsic. Who, after all, remembers what Tony Blair studied in his Oxford days?
Hopefully, some among us will do great things in and for the world. But for many, the price of that opportunity is too dear: How many of us would say that, above all else, we are seeking out the kind of first-rate education Yale can still offer?
The Yale administration abets this. It hires with pride world leaders who bring titles with enough sheen to surpass the blemishes of their blunders on the world stage, including such gems as the Iraq War. It gestures towards educational principle by instituting distributional requirements and then abandons all pretense of rigor by offering An Issues Approach to Biology and Planets and Stars.
Even Provost Peter Salovey’s signature class, Great Big Ideas, is based on the premise that intellectual exploration is something students can’t be bothered to do outside a class.
Perhaps worst of all, the Admissions Office fails to emphasize — the way, say, the University of Chicago or Swarthmore does — that one comes to Yale to learn.
It’s easy to treat education solely as a path to gainful employment, especially when that’s so hard to find. But Yale can provide haven from those practical pressures. These are the only four years in our lives when we can devote ourselves to thinking.
As the University selects its 23rd president, we students must do everything in our power to ensure that the first priority of those who lead our institution is to rejuvenate its intellectual climate. Of course, President Levin, over the last two decades, has been invaluable in ensuring that the facilities and faculty are of the highest caliber. But those efforts will have been wasted on Yale College if we take no joy in the life of the mind. Now, from the bottom of this University, we must reclaim our highest intellectual ideals and demand that those at the top do the same.
Gabriel Levine is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.