This past week, yet another class was admitted to Yale. It’s filled, undoubtedly, with dreamers — bright-eyed teenagers who hope to be the next president, billionaire CEO or insert-dream-job-here. Welcome. As you, the proverbial prefrosh, make choices about schools based on meaningless rankings about their relative strengths in fields you profess to love (at least, before McKinsey comes calling), Yale will undoubtedly boast about its world-class facilities and professors. The University’s sales pitch is that coming here will make you smarter — but that’s a stupid way to sell a university.
Yale isn’t designed to be the place for you to become the smartest that you can be. Neither Yale, nor any of its peer institutions are the best places for academic learning anymore. Instead, they’re human incubators — places where students who all fall into some nebulous category of “best” or “good” at something can come together and interact. And if its students want to solve the world’s problems, that’s the way it should be.
PayPal CEO Peter Thiel famously argues that the real movers and shakers of the world don’t do their learning in the classroom. To him, tuition dollars are mostly used to “pay for lies that people tell about how great their education was.” Instead, he thinks that young people learn by doing — specifically, by trying (and usually failing) to create companies that address everything from disease to global hunger.
In some ways, he’s right. Going to college certainly isn’t the most efficient way to learn. Even going to the “best” colleges doesn’t really mean much. Yale and its peer institutions have their fair share of poor instructors. If you really want the best professors, turn to YouTube, edX or any number of online courses for your subjects of choice. Not only will your lessons be top-notch, but you won’t pay a dime. But, of course, that’s not why you should come to Yale.
Sometime during the last 50 years, Yale has transformed its purported mission from something to the effect of “teach the smartest people the most advanced stuff” to “shape the leaders of the world to cause the most social change.” Indeed, according to Yale’s website, it seeks to admit the “leaders of [each] generation.” When you frame the mission of the University this way, a lot more about Yale makes sense.
Think about it like the world’s most interdisciplinary think tank turned social club. By surrounding students with people who have depth but not necessarily breadth, the University hopes to inspire them.
For example, why admit athletes, as one columnist for the News questioned a few weeks ago? Because the best athletes are just as insightful as the best cellists or debaters. Why do students at Yale spend so much more time on extracurricular activities than classwork? Because in many fields, taking the most advantage of Yale’s wealth and resources means much more than doing the readings for a seminar. Why do we have such rampant grade inflation? Because for all our bluster about learning and truth, we know that the leaders of the world also need the best credentials.
And of course, such a mission explains one of the most controversial aspects of the modern university system: admissions. Author Susan Cain argued in The New York Times a few weeks ago that American universities put an unhealthy premium on showing “leadership” in college applications. The current admissions system, she suggests, selects for club presidents rather than those who are genuinely skillful or passionate. Despite this criticism, I’m skeptical about how frequently Yale admits club presidents who have no interest in their clubs whatsoever. Besides, does it really matter how passionate one is about a subject if he or she doesn’t have the wherewithal to inspire others with that passion? The ability to effect change is inextricably linked to the ability to exhibit signs of leadership. This is also why test scores aren’t the be-all-end-all for admissions. It makes more sense to funnel resources toward those who are best able to create something to show for it rather than the most effective human calculators.
All of this paints a very different picture of Yale than the one shown in our glossy admissions booklets. If you think of college as merely a chance to gain academic knowledge, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Instead it’s a place to rub shoulders with people who have had vastly different life experiences and hopefully gain a new understanding about the world along the way
Shreyas Tirumala is a junior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .