In case you forgot, there is an election today. For many of us, this will be the first time we cast a ballot for the next president of the United States.
With the timing of all of this, I thought for a while that I’d write a column about for whom I was voting. But I kept having trouble putting a decent piece together.
On one level, wedged somewhere between being a scientologist in Vatican City and a drunken Red Sox fan in the central Bronx, lies the popularity of a column, “The Case for Mitt Romney,” at Yale. On a deeper level, though, is that when it comes right down to it as college students, we really have no clue what we are talking about.
To speak of students at one of the world’s best universities as being clueless seems relatively counterintuitive. For all of the Kant or Derrida we have under our belt, we are certainly as qualified to vote as the “average American.” Right?
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However, I’m someone who has never held a job longer than a summer, who has never been entirely financially independent, who has never served in the military and, in general, has never had to endure the realities of the world without the knowledge that I was never far from the safe haven of home and Mother Yale. Actually, the belief that I am qualified to vote for the president of the United States could be the furthest thing from the truth.
While my story is far from universal, I would hazard that it is closer to the majority here at Yale. Our lives have mostly existed in the realm of ideas, sheltered largely (at least for a few more years) from the harsh circumstances of the realm of action.
The academy — with its prestige and resources — can with little difficulty construct an appealing set of rose-colored glasses, by which we can evaluate ourselves and in turn a readily simple world. In doing so, we afford ourselves an intellectual authority by association; one that not only allows us to access this world, but grants permission to speak confidently of its truths.
There is something about voting at such a young age, which allows for, if not reinforces, this dangerous temptation. Just look at the last few weeks of columns on these pages. With relative certainty, students have become economists, political philosophers, four-star generals and often all the above, in 800 words or less.
This is all well and good, as long as we remember we are playing dress-up. Even as someone who has devoted a large amount of his Yale career to politics, I really have no clue if I’ll re-read my columns 30 years from now with a laugh, as I dust off my anniversary edition of “The Audacity of Hope.”
And we shouldn’t be mistaken about this: we don’t know really know the world we theorize about. But now, for whatever merit, we are expected to cast a concrete, actual vote on its future.
There is a powerful tension between the purpose of a liberal arts education and the presuppositions behind the right to vote. On one hand, we are expected to first learn just how unwise we are, and through our education gain glimpses into the guiding principles that will build our character in adulthood. On the other hand, as voters, we are expected to possess sufficient means to choose the qualifications of the next leader of the free world.
This tension becomes even more powerful as the particular features of our demographic come into play. We certainly have a proclivity for intellectual infatuation. For every Ayn Rand there is a John Rawls. We are inclined — by finding just the right thinker, professor or book — to feel we have found the keys to unlocking the world. But we lack the range of practical experience to adequately break from the binding of books.
With all this said, I plan on voting today. Men far wiser and braver than me have fought for and designed the system that we have inherited.
However, I will not vote without a deep sense of conflict. Perhaps I have been granted a privilege, although well-intentioned, before my time. Perhaps our voting bloc is still too academically insulated to have so much sway on the world.
In any circumstance, many of us will today, for the first time in our lives, participate in one of the most remarkable traditions of the Western world. Voting is a right conceived by the greatest minds of our history and forged by the blood of heroes before us. Let us not approach this moment just with reverence, but also the intellectual humility it deserves.
Harry Graver is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This piece is part of the News’ Election Day Forum. Click here to read more.