It’s Bulldog Days, which means that Yale students (or at least the ones who aren’t too jaded to partake) and professors alike are busying themselves trying to sell Yale to incoming students. And I wish them all the best — Yale is an amazing place, and with only three classes left in my entire Yale experience, I’m feeling pretty nostalgic about the wonderful and life-altering experiences I’ve had here. (If you’re reading this, prefrosh, come to Yale!)
That said, however, I think Bulldog Days is also the very first instance of a common Yale trope. No doubt, at multiple talks and meet and greets around campus at this very moment, faculty and students are enticing prospective new Yalies with a seductive promise: If you come here, you will be important. Just by virtue of your admission, they say sweetly, you have already proved your importance. I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve taken where professors say, almost conspiratorially, that they’re teaching us what they’re teaching us because we are the future leaders of the country. That someday, when we’re important, we’ll use these skills to further our important goals.
That’s all well and good, and I’d be lying if I said that some part of my ego wasn’t smug at being told (by “important” professors) that they deem me important. It’s a brilliant ploy to bring you into their inner ring. But let’s be honest: I’m not important. And, chances are, you’re not important. I don’t mean to be rude or down on myself — rather, I’m just questioning the use of “importance” as the relevant standard. Why prioritize importance instead of, for example, added value? You don’t have to believe in your own importance to believe that you said something useful in seminar, or that you contributed something good to the community through this or that extracurricular.
I think what I’m saying is that valuing importance as the primary indicator of worth is a ubiquitous Yale trait. It’s drilled into us from the moment we step on campus, and we absolutely internalize and propagate it, in ways that deeply affect campus culture. At every step of our Yale career, we seek the “importance” that has been ascribed to us — we seek “important” internships, we apply to “important” classes, we court “important” professors. Part of the reason that the society process is so harrowing is that we view admission to or rejection from a society as a comment on our “importance” as a campus presence.
What if we gave up on importance? It doesn’t mean thinking any less of ourselves, but rather thinking of our worth, ambitions and contributions differently. Because the other thing about being told by the president of an established university that you’re important is that we are somehow made complicit. We have somehow bought into a value system that I, at least, didn’t intentionally sign up for. What if I don’t want to be important by some crusty establishment professor’s metric? What if I want to rebel against the values that he touts as important? By wrapping all of us into these traditional conceptions of importance, we are in some ways deprived of an easy way to challenge those entrenched standards.
This is a weird time. I’m less than a month away from graduation, and yet am currently confronted with droves of people who have a full four years of Yale ahead of them. Whatever side of the Yale juncture we’re on, though, if there’s one message I want to leave you all with, it’s to fight against the allure of “importance.” It doesn’t make you a better person to achieve campus importance, and it certainly doesn’t make you a lesser one to go about your life and your passions without much attention. Importance isn’t the same as talent, as inspiration or even as the value of your contributions to your chosen field. So much of what gave me anxiety over these past years is the idea that my ambitions weren’t important enough — that they would leave me wallowing in obscurity as my peers launched themselves into prominence.
I’ve come to believe that it doesn’t matter. Importance just isn’t a value judgment that I want to believe in. And if you’re just coming into Yale, I urge you not to let anyone here force you to believe in it; and if you’re on your way out, now is the time to assess whether you want to believe in it, too. And if you don’t, then it’s time to leave this bizarre, competitive metric behind.
Victoria Hall-Palerm is a senior in Berkeley College. This is her last column for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .