In 1966, then-Yale student Murray Lerner attempted to chronicle life as an undergraduate in his film, “To Be a Man.” As sociologist Jerome Karabel observes in his history of college admissions, “The Chosen,” Yale prided itself more on its ability to mold men of character than on the academic caliber of its students. Instead of SAT scores, the admissions process examined such qualities as “‘industry,’ ‘persistence,’ ‘self-discipline,’ ‘sense of responsibility’ and … ‘ability to participate in group activities.’” If a young man from Phillips Andover fit the bill, he was in.
Today, the notion of a quintessential “Yale Man” is laughable. In the late ’60s, when the University made the long-overdue decision to include women and more minority and low-income students, the “Yale ethos” dissolved as a result of an increasingly diverse student body.
Fast forward to 2016, and one would be hard pressed to find two people on our campus whose definition of “Yalie” is the same. This is undoubtedly a positive development. At the same time, though, it leaves us without a clear ideal to which to aspire. We as Yalies lose the coherent identity that our forbearers shared. This phenomenon is not limited to Yale, but continues to play out around the world. As institutions and nations open up, we face the challenge of redefining what it means to belong to a community.
Take a Wall Street Journal article from this month that details a recent crisis at the Monte dei Paschi bank in Siena, Italy. Founded in 1472, the bank has been a staple of the community and the local economy in Siena for centuries. However, because the firm can no longer compete with larger, multinational conglomerates, it has had to dramatically reduce operations and cut jobs. Residents of Siena have not only seen their savings evaporate and their livelihoods disappear, but they have also witnessed the dislocation of what was once the center of their city. As more players enter the game, people become dislocated. Just as the changes of the 1960s challenged Yale men of yore, the transnational flows of capital have remade Siena.
In the United States, middle-aged white men who came of age in a workplace tailored to their preferences and needs now face competition from a wide variety of historically underrepresented demographic groups. Depression and suicide rates have skyrocketed among these men, who feel disoriented by the new and more egalitarian workplace.
This sense of disorientation explains the rise of Donald Trump (yes, all roads lead to Trump). He has channeled the frustration of people whose local institutions — be they steel mines or automobile factories — have collapsed or transformed under the weight of an open world. In a time of rapid change, he has successfully harnessed the potent force of reactionary politics.
What Trump and his supporters fail to recognize is that the openness they bemoan has created prosperity around the world. As a direct consequence of the decline of the American manufacturing sector, subsistence farmers in Southeast Asia have been able to make dramatically better lives for themselves working in cities. And men who bemoan the new workplace ignore the fact that women and minorities only recently acquired access to those workplaces.
For better or for worse, Yalies are among those who benefit most from globalization. We have the skills to navigate a decentralized world. Yet we ought to sympathize with those whose lives have been disrupted and destabilized by globalization.
As the beneficiaries of this transformation, we must ensure that we address the concerns of communities displaced by global forces. It is our responsibility to rework the American narrative, and broaden the horizons of what it means to be a citizen.
We as a nation ought to be good at this. In his seminal text, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville argued that in the 18th century, the radical equality of the United States undercut Europe’s centuries-old, aristocratic values. People felt threatened by a new and more egalitarian political economy. But Tocqueville noted that the decline of Ancient Regime values was redeemed by “the picture of one vast democracy in which … all mankind can be seen together in broad daylight.”
In many ways, we face the same challenges as Americans did in the time of Tocqueville. Out of our newfound openness, we must shape a thriving and coherent community.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .
Correction, Oct. 27: Due to an editing error, a previous version of the column omitted the final paragraph online. The current column now reflects the print edition.