I recently witnessed hundreds of Yale graduate students and community members gather around Woodbridge Hall, demanding that the University grant graduate students the right to unionize. It was a poignant moment and one that the Yale community needs to replicate more often.
That night, my friends and I discussed the demonstration, comparing it to our undergraduate experiences. Over cold coffee, we considered whether the fervor we brought to New Haven was misplaced in a system where undergraduate energy is intensely channeled to academic, extracurricular and social spheres.
Not everyone needs to fill a role as a public thought leader or activist. Likewise, attention given to academics, extracurricular and social commitments is not fruitless. But initiating more daring thought and action should not be isolated from these spheres; instead, it should become more ingrained within them.
At dinner, my friends and I often trade complaints about how intellectually homogenous our class discussions can be. It’s not that Yalies don’t hold strong opinions, but that we’re too afraid to vocalize seemingly controversial stances in somewhat-public settings, whether it is in a campus-wide publication, our classes or even among strangers.
One of my friends was irritated by a News article last week that he believed misrepresented Yale-NUS. Although he held a strong view of the matter and debated it vigorously over lunch, he wasn’t willing to write an opinion column or find another substantial means to address the issue.
For some Yalies, this fear stems from the concern of being Googled 15 years later when they are starting a political career. For others, it might be the fear of immediate ridicule or mockery on social media.
But for most people, I suspect, their hesitation comes from the temptations of intellectual inertia. It’s just easier to go along with the majority opinion. No one will shoot you down in seminar and you won’t get any angry online comments on your News column. You may not make a name for yourself or evoke the rare praise from a demanding professor, but it’s the safe and well-trodden path that too many of us are on.
While this inertia is safe, it compromises a crucial component of what a Yale education should be. We are a university of students from every background imaginable — nearly every country is represented and we have expert musicians and philosophers, athletes and actors. But too often we don’t actualize or make the most of that diversity.
When we create a milieu that encourages students to put forward their own radical thoughts, we’ll be empowering an entire community to create a beautifully vibrant mosaic of ideas. But if everyone is too comfortable and too willing to just toe the conventional line and recite the same hackneyed beliefs, then we’re giving up on what makes Yale unique.
Furthermore, I would argue that we are doing a disservice to our peers when we’re not willing to challenge the prevailing norms. Yale forms each year’s class with the intent that each member will add something different. But when we’re no longer willing to put forward our most controversial or bold thoughts, we’re depriving one another of the chance of learning a new perspective and evaluating our own.
Even though I disagreed with my friend’s critique of the News article, his boldness at the lunch table forced me to reevaluate my assumptions. When we are no longer willing to engage deeply with one another’s thoughts or share our strong convictions, we are permitting stagnation. In a sense, we have given up on each other when we abandon our individuality for the incontrovertible talking points.
Let me be clear: I am not discouraging moderation. Washington could definitely use a dose of it. And there are times, such as when our campus was desecrated by swastikas, when the only acceptable response was to show empathy for one another and join in compassion and tolerance. But sometimes, we’re stifling ourselves and Yale by holding back.
It’s on us to create an environment that welcomes intellectual risk. From our publications to our classrooms, we need to tell one another that it’s okay to move beyond groupthink and put forward our own innovative ideas, even if they’re flawed. We should make our words count rather than cheerlead commonplace sentiments that offer little to contend with and, subsequently, little to take away. Every time we snicker or post a snarky comment when one of our classmates takes a risk and writes something original or dares to put forward an untested idea on a radio show, we’re creating a school where it’s not okay to be wrong.
In our classes, we learn how to think and write critically. But we’re not using these skills productively right now. If we can make a more welcoming Yale, one where we feel an obligation to put forward our own ideas for each other’s intellectual growth, then maybe we can find the convictions that propelled graduate students and others to unify in front of Woodbridge Hall.
Kelsi Caywood is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.