Over break, I enjoyed the distinct displeasure of nervous parents of high-school seniors asking about my college process. Over time, my response has become a script. One: “Yale is a place where people are interested and interesting — a place where people actually Talk about Things.” Two: “Yale has the best Art Department of its peer institutions, save Brown, and my music taste is NOT good enough for me to go to Brown” (light chuckles from listeners). Three: “Yale is closer to home than Harvard, and Nana is getting old,” which garners the most smiles from my mother. Quips aside, it’s been easier to deliver this spiel than to actually probe what that identity means to me now.
The old Yale identity — the Yale Man — has been fossilized as an aesthetic. He worked hard, played harder and was slightly less WASPy than our Crimson frenemies up north — Sherman McCoy or Tom Buchanan. To let Charles McGrath sum it up in the New York Times Style section, he was “a Cole Porter-ish sort of fellow, stylish and well connected, who spoke with just a hint of a lockjaw accent. He was John Lindsay ’44 LAW ’48, to pick a single, perfect example.”
Lindsay, however, transcended his aesthetic: He was a veteran, a politician and even a journalist. Aside from the Good Old Boys fashion sense, old Yale Men like Lindsay were civic-minded, elites and winners, but also crusaders for the public good.”
Today, we are not these Yale Men, much though some of my blazer-wearing, coffee-decanting, oxford-comma-venerating peers would like us to be. Instead, we are Yale students. But what does that mean?
Scott Stern ’15 painted a rather scathing portrait of the “New Yale Man” in this very publication last year (“The New Yale Man,” Feb. 2). “The New Yale Man is born choking on a silver spoon in a New York hospital,” he writes. An economics major, a bit of a handsome slacker who “joins a society to make connections, or, as he calls them, friends. He takes Grand Strategy, or something like that.”
Stern’s portrayal becomes more attractive as the sheen of the admissions booklet fades with time. We eventually realize Yale students are not, each and every one, a Harkness Tower pillar of intellect, morality and thoughtfulness. Yes, 25 percent of our classmates will go into finance. Yes, some nights we [Talk About Literature In Ivy-Lined Gothic Architecture]. But some nights we also go to Toads. This is a real place, and our Yale identity is also that of 20-year-old students having fun, slacking off, raging against some invisible machine. Stern’s superficial assessment of an inwardly focused, self-serving student fails to probe the “why” behind this perceived careerism.
Let’s return to my first reason for coming to Yale: stimulating dialogue. Being here for a year has given me some perspective, and unlike Stern, I don’t think we are vapid pre-professional cogs in a corporate machine. Yale is a place of discussion, in many ways more than some of the peer institutions. We actually talk to each other here, and our discourse is a huge part of our identity as the new Yale students.
In many ways, our own microcosm of a functioning public sphere plays out on the comments threads of “Overheard at Yale,” our civic agora. But more than a place for coy updates about Sasha Pup, campuswide dialogues sometimes blossom out of conversations happening between people who may not know one another personally. The lusty exchange on Saturday night in response to Erika Christakis’ email is just one example of a rare, but worthwhile, totem to our shared identity of discussion.
Yet even though we talk, we don’t act. Calhoun is still “Calhoun,” with few people weighing in either way; mental health services here are still complicated, classist and confusing; and people wear the orange divestment “Y” as an afterthought while drinking bottled water. Perhaps this is what Stern meant when he wrote, “now, the rich, the privileged, the Yale Men, have lost any sense of social responsibility.” That is why I hesitate to use the word “deliberation” — what our own Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77 defined as “an alternative model of institutional decision-making [that is] nevertheless a decision-making process … [and not] just having a conversation.” Maybe we once were a campus of deliberators, but now it seems that we are more a campus of conversers, of dialoguers, of talkers.
Deliberating is its own form of activism, and birthed so many action-based men of letters like Lindsay and Henry Luce ’20 of Time Magazine. Ours is an intellectual probing instead of a mattress-carrying campus, and there’s something valuable about that dialogue. The next iteration of our speech-act identity must actually act. That’s what our generation of Yale students must overcome: Ours is an identity of erudite barkers, without any civic bite. At least for the time being.