As an international student, I am often asked about the differences between the United States and my home country Singapore. It is a surprisingly difficult question. As Benedict Anderson points out in his yet-to-be-published memoirs, “Comparison is not a method or even an academic technique; rather, it is a discursive strategy.” It is incredibly hard to argue that two entities are fundamentally similar or different, much less that one is better or worse than the other. Often, it’s a matter of finding the contrasts or commonalities we need to support our beliefs about the world.
Yet so much of our academic enterprise and everyday life is devoted to comparison. We write papers comparing texts by this author and that author; we spend seminars discussing whether a case is typical or atypical of something under consideration. Outside of class, our choices are governed by the subliminal comparisons we make. Vanilla or chocolate? Toad’s or Bass? Swipe left or swipe right?
And then there are the deeper comparative questions we ask ourselves. Am I special (or special enough)? Am I getting the quintessential Yale experience? How do I stack up against my friends? These comparisons are not just a source of stress and anxiety, but also of spite and ill will: In trying to justify the decisions we make, we sometimes end up denigrating and delegitimizing the experiences of those around us. I can’t be great if you’re awesome, too, or so the thinking goes.
But comparison is not just bad for the soul; it is bad for the mind as well. Our attempts to distinguish ourselves are often silly and trivial. Of course we are all unique on some level, shaped by the variation of genetics and the vicissitudes of life. A cappella groups, sports teams, frats and sororities — the groups we join as wide-eyed, first-semester freshmen can have a profound influence on how our four years at Yale pan out.
And yet there is also a great deal of convergence. If a survey were conducted, I suspect most Yalies would report broadly similar experiences: moments of intimacy interspersed with moments of alienation (and lots of small talk in between), periods of drudgery punctuated with periods of triumph.
Consequently, comparison is a flawed method for living life. Despite this, the Yale experience can often feel like being on a treadmill at Payne Whitney. You look at the person next to you and decide to run faster, even though you are not going anywhere in particular. Such attitudes are unfortunate: Yale should be a jog through East Rock in the New England fall — each person running at their own pace, setting their own route and enjoying the beautiful foliage as they run.
Unfortunately, a number of practices at Yale actively promote facile comparison. Too many classes continue to use bell curves for grading, in spite of educational research demonstrating the benefits of evaluating each student’s work on its own merit. Part of this owes to the demise of genuinely independent work as a mode of assessment. Many majors now allow a senior seminar in lieu of a thesis, and many “objective” exams simply test students’ ability to regurgitate “facts.” The result is a shift towards a production-line model of education — the type of box-checking exercise that lends itself to senseless competition.
Indeed, there is an old Chinese proverb about the futility of comparison: “Compare upwards, and you’ll find something greater. Compare downwards, and you’ll find something lesser.” Whenever I feel self-congratulatory, I remind myself that David Hume was writing one of the most important works of the Enlightenment when he was around my age. Or that Malala Yousafzai was 17 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize. On the flip side, I tell myself I could have ended up as Justin Bieber whenever I feel despondent.
Ultimately, we have little choice but to resign ourselves to the fact that we are “same, same but different,” a wonderful phrase in Thai English which illustrates the coexistence of diversity and conflux in a transnational world. In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s moving tribute to Antonin Scalia, she cites the end of the opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg”: “We are different, we are one.” It is a poignant line, especially given the two justices’ close friendship in the face of jurisprudential rivalry. Our differences should not define our relationships.
Or, to put the point another way: To compare is to despair.
Jun Yan Chua is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .