One of the more memorable conversations I’ve had in the last few months began with the usual sharing of upcoming summer plans with a Yale friend. I mentioned I’d be spending two weeks living in a monastery in Jerusalem before a summer internship began. As (mostly) a joke, I added that I might just stay there and join the monks for good. It’d be a liberating break from the rat race of college life and beyond. Her response: “Talk about a waste of a Yale education!”
I thought she was completely wrong. And yet it can be difficult to go through Yale and not end up catching yourself judging, in the back of your mind, those who don’t put their education “to good use,” whatever you understand that term to mean. Far from just a benign conversation starter, the “What did you do this summer?” question is loaded with expectations. The interrogator is waiting to be dazzled.
But while on the topic of what constitutes a good use of our four years here and what constitutes a waste of time and effort, let’s do a bit of soul-searching. It’s a question many freshmen are in the midst of trying to answer right now.
I don’t know how many Yale freshmen were student council presidents in high school, though I’m told the number is disproportionately high. Fine. For these students, who are already familiar with what an elected student body does, the college versions are pretty similar, if on a slightly larger scale. The limitations — we are, after all, just students in a huge corporate institution with a brand and image to maintain — are also similar. And yet, large numbers of freshmen pursue positions in student government, apparently ready to consign college life to a sort of high school 2.0. Many will find out, sooner or later, that only one person out of the hundreds who want it will end up being president — and then they’ll either settle for a lesser role or quit altogether, hours wasted in committee meetings discussing toilet paper or dining hall cereal options.
I don’t want to belittle the work that administrative committees or the student council do. The typical Yale College Council insider will tick off the list of accomplishments in recent years. But that response misses the point. Many changes could have been implemented without the bureaucratic black hole of the college and class council apparatuses, which often acts as a rubber stamp rather than a brain trust of innovative ideas.
But there’s a deeper point to be made. There are more pressing demands on a student’s time than student government or its counterparts. By this I mean either more pressing moral responsibilities to serve other communities or an obligation to invest time not into an organization’s day-to-day operations but into one’s personal ethical growth.
It is too easy to treat life as a continuation of high school. A leadership post in college, a string of glossy internships, a polished seat at a top graduate school, a cushy job. LinkedIn is teeming with these profiles.
Is anything wrong with this setup? Most will agree that an unexamined life is not worth living, but a life of examination isn’t necessarily incompatible with this. It’s more about the motivations, I think, than the outcomes. Some iteration of the life description above could very well be a productive, interesting, meaningful one. But if you believe in something like the importance of learning how to lead the good life, of discovering truth, a high school 2.0 life doesn’t provide it.
I’ll cut the philosophizing and get to the punch line: In all likelihood, you can spend the next four years doing something much more valuable than student government. Your Yale degree, for better of worse, will get you far, so take some liberties you otherwise wouldn’t. Communities next door and far away could really use your help. And you need yourself to spend these years creating the manual you’ll refer back to for the rest of your life. Many overcompensate for not having a deep sense of who they are and what they believe by just continuing to climb until an existential crisis hits.
And you won’t have time to start putting together your life manual if you’re at committee meetings by day and sending out survey emails by night.
John Aroutiounian is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.