What happens when an academic education isn’t enough?

LeoKimThere’s a debate among many schools of thought spanning history on the question of what motivates our actions. Generally, it’s divided into two camps. There are those who say we, as humans, act from rationality — that given the relevant information, we will take logical actions based on those premises. Others say that we act primarily from our emotions, and that rationality comes in as a kind of afterthought, an ad hoc justification of sorts.

As Yalies, we supposedly embody the ideals of the former group. We’re a fairly reflective group of people. Although sometimes we may give ourselves a little bit too much credit, I do think that we make our decisions by appealing to rational thought. We tend to be well-informed and carefully scrutinize our own views with debate and conversation.

And yet, for all that, I think it’s clear that we don’t do enough when it comes to acting on the issues we recognize as important.

We do, of course, love having bloody bare-knuckle verbal arguments on those issues we are “passionate” about. We love abstracting problems and practicing mental gymnastics whenever possible — just read the comments sections of the News’ opinion page if you ever want proof.

We’ve somehow abstracted the debate surrounding political correctness in the classroom into one about the ideals of “free speech.” We’ve intellectualized the conversation on the naming of Calhoun into a dialogue involving vague notions of history and cultural relativism. We’ve turned the fight to help eradicate homelessness into a discussion on societal obligations and the role of the state.

But somewhere along those lines, we lost the human element. We abstracted ourselves so far from the actuality of the situation, from the “on the ground” realities, that we stopped talking about what made the issues important in the first place — the personal impact these issues had on us as individuals.

These issues didn’t come to light because of some intellectual revelation. They came to light because of the actual feelings and reactions of those affected. And to the extent that we fail to engage those feelings and realities into our discussion, we will continue to talk past each other.

I’m not saying there’s no value to intellectual thought. However, to the extent that we seek an education to become better people with the proper motivations to act, it’s simply not enough. It takes little self-reflection to realize that we don’t seem to act solely on the vague, principled notions given by the theories and philosophies posited in our books.

After all, how many people recognize how terrible certain social issues are, justify their opinions on those issues and then do little about it? Think about the number of people who post on “Overheard at Yale” about some injustice they see being committed or share a Facebook photo to promote this or that cause. Now think about how many people are acting to make tangible change and are volunteering something beyond words to do so.

I’m not saying that people in the latter group don’t exist. Thankfully, many do. But I think we would be fooling ourselves if we said that these people were not a minority.

This discrepancy seems to point to the fact that an academic education that only imparts “the facts of the matter” fails to change our behavior in practice. Merely knowing that something is bad doesn’t motivate us.

After all, most agree that global warming is bad, and slowly becoming irreversible. But how many of us act on that knowledge? Unfortunately, not enough.

But if learning the facts isn’t enough, then exactly what do we need?

If we want an education that motivates us to become better people, we need to restore the human element we lose when we abstract ourselves into hyper-intellectualism. When we have a discussion about the principles of an issue, we must also keep in mind that some things are more than just theory for some. We need to meet the very people a problem affects, learn their stories, their motivations and truly try to understand— from both an emotional and intellectual perspective— where they’re coming from. We need to see and live the problem rather than merely reading or talking about it. In a word, we need to go beyond what the classroom or even our dining hall debate can give us.

Only when we come down from our ivory towers of intellectual thought can we actually understand the issues we try to address. We must recognize that Yale, both as an educational institution and a incubator of thought, can only do so much.

Only then can we bridge the divide between thought and action.

Leo Kim is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at leo.kim@yale.edu .