For decades, students keen on international relations have pounced at the opportunity for rigorous debate outside the classroom. Our current extracurricular IR milieu, however, is unrecognizable from its traditional counterpart. To our detriment, we have mutated into performing dull administrative tasks rather than focusing on intellectual attainment.
Let’s take three examples of the older model. First, in the 1940s, most Yalies, like William F. Buckley Jr., debated for hours on all sorts of issues, including IR, as part of the Yale Political Union. Second, referring to the 1950s extracurricular culture at Brown, where he studied, Yale professor Charles Hill reflected, “The intellectual approach was serious.” Third, Yale professor David Brooks’s undergraduate life at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s resembled Hill’s: “We often spent two or three hours around the table, shooting the breeze and arguing about things,” he once wrote.
At a time when interest in the YPU is in decline, a large number of organizations purport to focus on IR. But the Yale International Relations Association, the largest organization on campus, best represents the current, administrative model.
In the words of longtime YIRA member Angie Hanawa ’15, “a large part of what YIRA does is organizational work.” It hosts the annual YMUN mega-conference. It also organizes and participates in other similar conferences at Yale and around the world, all year round.
I am a member of the organization and recently participated in its annual YMUN. To organize YMUN, YIRA begins planning a year in advance. Scores of Yalies are involved. Hundreds of emails are exchanged. Dozens of meetings are held. The content of all of this interaction: Are the placards ready? Have the rooms been booked? How many T-shirts to order? Do you know your security shift?
When one experiences the tedium inherent in putting together even one of these conferences, as I did with YMUN, one can only ask: Why?
As for the intellectual content of the conference itself: Speeches are frequently based on Wikipedia articles. A typical committee’s aim is to reach a resolution on, say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in the space of a few hours. The memory of the pandemonium melts the snow off one’s shoulder.
Instead of organizing these mega-conferences, why doesn’t YIRA just focus on programs that truly carry intellectual content? YIRA’s subsidiary, the Yale Review of International Studies, for example, publishes terrific scholarship. The Global Perspectives Society, another YIRA program, organizes exciting debates and lectures. Yet within the yearlong winter of YIRA conferences, YRIS and GPS constitute but a few days of spring.
Perhaps résumés are a motivator behind the conferences. In an era of ever-competitive internship and job searches, YIRA gives one grandiose titles: Secretary General, Under-Secretary General of General Assembly Committees, Senior Staffer of the Economic and Social Council. How could one refuse these delicious appellations?
There is a second reason as well. Former YIRA board member Suyash Bhagwat ’15 argues that “Through YIRA, you learn a vast array of life skills such as event management, planning, [internal] diplomacy, team work.” These skills, he explains, are applicable for any field one might join upon graduating.
Despite all of this, I think passing up the current model is in our interest. Relentlessly attending to our resumes is a concomitant part of our zeitgeist. But is adding a few empty titles all that valuable? They come, after all, at the expense of acquiring what President Salovey once exhorted as a “contrarian education” — which can only come from the independence of mind that follows rigorous debate. And Bhagwat might be right; skills such as event management are important. But if YIRA is teaching event management, perhaps it ought to change its name. The Yale Event Management Corporation might be a more suitable title.
Compared to the current model, the older model nurtured a more sociable environment. It placed the intellect at the forefront. People attacked each other’s ideas and advancement in an organization was based largely on one’s intelligence. In the current model, more dubious characteristics assume importance. According to Hanawa, to thrive in YIRA you must be “thick-skinned, ambitious, charismatic, diplomatic, very political and popular.” Notice that intelligence doesn’t even come up on the list.
Finally, the older model is superior to the current one because it prepared students — Buckley, Hill and Brooks among them — to shape the IR-related institutions they entered upon graduating. The current model, in contrast, prepares students simply to game the system. The aim, as Hanawa put it, “is to scale up the ladder” — no matter how, without even questioning if the ladder is worth scaling.
We must move back to the older model. If an organization seeks to foster “debate about international relations,” it should focus on the intellectual and just keep things simple. Fostering debate when we have Yale’s tremendous resources at hand is not a costly proposition. Why in heavens does an organization require a $350,000 budget or a near million-dollar endowment? To fulfill their mission, all that YIRA and other such organizations need to do is get a bunch of students and perhaps a few professors and guests in a room, and get them talking.
All of us at Yale strive for excellence in all its forms: the classroom, the art studio, the sports field. I hope we can restore excellence in our extracurricular IR endeavors as well.
Abhimanyu Chandra is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .