As admitted students scampered around Yale this past week, I couldn’t help but think back to my own decision to come here. A pivotal moment when I chose Yale — a moment I recounted in my first column for the News — was a confession I made to my high school history teacher. I believe in Yale academically, I told him, but I’m not sure if I believe in Yale morally yet.
As I near the end of my first year here, that “yet” has been bothering me. Do I now believe in Yale morally? And what, even, are the criteria for a moral Yale?
It’s fair to consider, first, that determining the morality of Yale is perhaps an exercise in indulgence, even by Yale standards. Some would argue Yale is, singularly, a research university where you earn a degree in exchange for hard work and tuition. It is an academy, sure, but at its core, it is transactional.
Still, I suspect that Yale is more than just a transaction. New York Times columnist and part-time Yale professor David Brooks has categorized that ambiguous “more,” theorizing that a college education has three main purposes: the commercial, the cognitive and the moral.
At Yale, the commercial is the link between Yale and a career, the connections and support we’ve got in terms of internships and jobs. This is the most surface-level, unromantic purpose. The cognitive, of course, is everything that we learn. It’s the classically educational part of Yale. The hardest one is the third one, the moral. Perhaps the future of Yale, in part, depends on how well Yale provides a moral education. So, what’s a moral education?
Brooks seems to defer to Harvard psychology professor William James’ 1900 essay, “What Makes a Life Significant.” In the piece, James identifies four distinct components of a morally significant life: fidelity, struggle, endurance and courage. When it comes to evaluating Yale, that rubric seems like a decent place to start.
Fidelity connotes loyalty and allegiance, the kind of faithfulness that we show to things bigger than ourselves. Fidelity means deliberateness, doing only the things in which you find meaning and doing them to their fullest. At Yale, I don’t think this is commonplace. Yale bills itself as a place of “and” — a math major “and” an artist, an athlete “and” an English major. But living a true life of “and” is hard. We sometimes scrape by instead of digging in.
Struggling means tenacity in the face of resistance. At Yale, that happens in plenty of ways: The student-athlete struggles to juggle coursework with a busy schedule and demanding coach; the low-income student struggles to live a balanced life while managing a job; and the first-generation student struggles to pick a less-than-lucrative major in the face of a family at home that needs and demands financial support.
Those struggles require endurance, and endurance demands stamina. It shouldn’t be surprising that people here live with plenty of stamina — but sometimes, I think, stamina is romanticized at Yale. Competing over who stays up the latest working or who packs their schedules the fullest isn’t worthy; it’s ridiculous.
These virtues pale, though, in comparison to courage: moral courage. Former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes that moral courage is the courage to act on internal values despite what people do to try to change your mind.
Do we do that at Yale? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, people here are quick to act on values, even if they’re not their own. After a point, things like (often unsubstantiated) criticism of “the administration” are studies in groupthink, not thoughtful, individual reflection. On the other hand, values only take people so far here. Too often, the activist still takes the internship with Goldman Sachs. The education policy wonk can talk and write about the importance of great public school teachers but probably won’t become a teacher himself or herself. The history of art major is still a pre-med because it is difficult to get a real job in art history. It’s not just that we’re imperfect and that we have competing external influences, but we’re also often not as morally courageous as we ought to be.
As I close my last column for this year, I have more questions than answers. I still don’t know if I believe in Yale morally, yet. What I do know is that my longing toward that end shows some sort of loyalty, perhaps irrational, that I’ve developed for this place. That longing, one year in, is hopefully the right thing to feel.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .