There is too much happening at Yale. And because there is so much happening, we are divided into little fiefdoms and small conversations. Few events have the power to spark campus-wide discussions, and few of these discussions have the staying power to have a meaningful impact on student opinion. The very wealth of opportunities has made us poorer.
Yesterday morning, I checked my calendar and realized that in addition to my classes and organizational meetings, I had scribbled down notes to attend six different events within the space of four hours. On my schedule was information for: two separate Masters’ Teas (both scheduled for 4 p.m.), activist Michelle Alexander’s talk at the Divinity School (5:30 p.m.), John Negroponte’s discussion of current foreign policy priorities (6 p.m.), Peter Salovey’s “Open Forum” (7 p.m.) and Sufi Shaykh Hisham Kabbani’s conversation with Rabbi James Ponet on “divine intoxication” (7 p.m.). Overwhelmed, the only thing I ended up going to was my regularly scheduled weekly Talmud study-session.
Of course, these events were just the tip of a very large iceberg. But the scary thing about life at Yale is that this sort of surplus is common. In fact, evenings like last night are all too typical. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with a parade of prominent dignitaries and intellectual movers and shakers. There are always far more events occurring and speakers visiting than any of us have the time or energy to attend. So we miss out.
The problem with the event saturation at Yale is not merely the disappointment at all the missed opportunities — that is simply part of life. The real problem is that the constant stream of speakers on campus crushes any kind of cohesive, campus-wide engagement with our guests and their ideas.
Imagine the power of the conversation around race and mass incarceration that might have been sparked if Michelle Alexander’s lecture was the only guest appearance of the week. Imagine the kind of debate over American foreign policy that Negroponte could have sparked if more than a handful had attended his talk in LC 211. But neither of these talks will have anywhere near that kind of impact. After all, barely anyone heard them speak, and those who did will be running off to hear some other important guest tomorrow evening.
Decades ago, when transportation was more difficult and guest appearances less frequent, individual speakers sparked serious and sustained discussion across campus. With far fewer guests and a more unified extracurricular culture, Ronald Reagan’s invitation to Yale in the midst of the Vietnam War triggered weeks of protest and discussion. William F. Buckley and William Sloane Coffin could go at one another, exploring the deepest questions of political philosophy before a political union that boasted membership of nearly a quarter of the Yale College undergraduates.
Today, there is no possibility for events to inspire collective soul-searching and University-wide introspection. Student intellectual life is balkanized into hundreds of discrete student organizations, each devoted to its own narrow areas of interest. Assaulted with options, we self-segregate into smaller communities, each engaged in a rat race to bring in its own blockbuster speakers. In the process, audiences become smaller and conversations shallower. Campus-wide debate has all but become a thing of the past.
There is likely no way to reverse the trend. The proliferation of student groups and the ease of modern travel assure the continued frenzy of special events, guests and opportunities. But we are deluding ourselves if we fail to realize that the abundance of opportunities has led to a drastic reduction in any individual event’s impact or reach. Even worse, it has led the dissolution of the University as a cohesive intellectual community.
One day, perhaps, we will realize that more is not always better, and that increased choice does not always lead to better results. But in the absence of systemic change, perhaps we might all breathe a little easier every time we miss 11 of 12 simultaneous happenings. Don’t lust for Hermione’s time-turner, dream of the day when it will be unnecessary.
Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .