Yale is an American school, but it doesn’t stress its national ties. Most folks who learn and work here are American, but excepting the mention of “country” in our alma mater, Yalies needn’t encounter their school’s relationship with America in any profound sense while they’re here. How can Yale ask greatness of its students without requiring them to study the country where most will try attaining it? Yale should commit to civic education, serving the Union by preparing its students to do the same in turn.
First, a brief case for a kind of patriotism. Each person has a natural affection for those closest to him rooted in dependence, gratitude and love — as a teacher of mine explained, willing the good of the other for the sake of the other. That we frequently pursue another’s good just because it is another’s good should persuade us that humans are meant to live in fellowship. Our membership in political communities — and the institutions, like Yale, we create therein — is part of our pursuit of fellowship.
Every Yalie hears this about Yale’s relationship with New Haven. Many speak of Yale as a citizen whose wealth obliges beneficence. They support Yale helping to solve the job crisis, contributing to city government and so on. So do I.
Yale’s relationship with America is less visible, but equally important. Our alumni have fought in America’s wars, served in its government and enriched its culture. America’s free institutions, in turn, have committed Yale to flourish. America also helps to fund Yale with its citizens’ tax dollars.
Most now know that Congress is the national legislature and that we have a right to the due process of law. But the intentions behind our Declaration and Constitution, their proper place in American life and their philosophical bases are disputed — indeed, were disputed at their birth. An education in their character, therefore, cannot be dogmatic. Instead, it has to be, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, an initiation into a tradition composed of certain questions.
Some of those questions address items in the Constitution — what is “commerce among the several states”?
Some of those questions address, to coin a phrase, the ontology of the Union. Is it a compact among independent and sovereign states? Is it a regime of certain procedures or the promise of a certain kind of life?
America is exceptional because its institutions self-consciously claim to derive their authority from self-evident truths — from the only legitimate basis for government. There is, then, a third category of questions concerning every society: In what way are all men equal? Who should rule?
I think Yale should go about civic education historically. Two events in particular, the Revolution and the Civil War, deserve our attention. The first, because it is the moment of our institutions’ birth and the most vigorous debates about their character. The second, because it tested, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, whether any nation conceived in and dedicated to the principles of the Revolution “could long endure.”
Teaching civics through history may also secure students’ attachment to the American political tradition. Holding the Constitution as a heritage and ourselves as the descendants of the Founding Fathers may subdue our youthful cynicism and itch to change everything. This is important because no society can survive permanent revolution. If we are to make some lasting improvements, we had better understand, and even admire, what we mean to improve.
Some readers must at this point be thinking: What about international students? I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about whether international students should be required to take classes in American history. But I will say this: When American Yale students spend a semester in Rome, don’t they expect to learn something about Italy? Shouldn’t Yale teach those who come here to study something about America?
You might also ask: Why politics, not literature or geography? It seems to me that America, since its birth, has been defined more by its politics than anything else. Some indicators: Our most important years were political years. 1776, 1787, 1864, 1945, 1964, 2001. America’s national heroes — Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lincoln, Douglass, Tubman, Anthony, TR, FDR, King, Reagan — are mostly those who have created or changed our politics.
“In Memory of the Men of Yale who true to Her Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not perish from the Earth. 1914 Anno Domini 1918.” So reads the inscription on the memorial to Yale’s war dead on Beinecke Plaza. Time to deepen the commitment, and make Yale for country once again.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .