Far too often, Yalies debate what the University should provide us. As we welcome Yale’s largest freshman class to a campus with two newly minted residential colleges, it is important to consider a different question: What, exactly, does the University ask of us?
Yale’s mission statement might provide one answer. The University “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.” Recently, in a campuswide email, Yale President Peter Salovey made use of the statement to emphasize — in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy — that students should be focused on building “a larger, more beautiful world.” Rather than specify steps to build that better world, Salovey rightly left it open to us. Indeed, he stressed the importance, as James Baldwin writes, of “ask[ing] questions about the universe.” This vision, grounded in curiosity and a respect for uncertainty, is a hopeful mission for students.
Unfortunately, curiosity seems to be lost within the current educational priorities of the University. Salovey recently said that Yale must develop its scientific output to continue to compete as a major global research university. In an official statement from November 2016, he details the potential that science has to change the world and “solve some of the most pressing issues of our time.” While emphasizing that Yale’s traditional strengths in the humanities and the arts will not fall to the wayside in the face of these new academic commitments, Salovey asserted a new direction for the campus moving forward. Humanities may be getting a different home in the Hall of Graduate Studies, but the University’s focal point has shifted to Science Hill. Our engagement with the world, Salovey writes, must be “grounded in evidence-based inquiry and rigorous analysis of facts.” Lux now seems dim next to its seemingly more practical Veritas.
Luckily, “Lux et Veritas” — the simple, yet profound motto of Yale — is not driven by the threat of a drop in university rankings. Rather, it preserves the subtle and complicated relationship between revelation and reason. A commitment to both “Light and Truth” maintains a never-ending spirit of inquiry. Yale’s motto suggests an awareness of our ignorance: We can never, even as members of a university, fully understand the world. We cannot solve all of its problems. We can only constantly search for the deeper meaning of existence.
Truth, on its own, is not enough for us Yalies (sorry Harvard). No, a Yalie knows that when they are met with a possible answer, they have only discovered more questions. A Yalie, by nature, is persistently curious.
Alas, the “change the world” mentality that Salovey is forced to promote has taken over mindsets across the nation. Young people must “be” somebody; they must “make a difference.” Science, technology, engineering and math are reduced to a marketable acronym that sells the illusion of progress to young, eager minds. We have so many problems! Not to worry, STEM has all the answers. Meanwhile, our philosophy, history and literature simply become fodder for “critical thinking” with e-books, we can simply peck at our screens to fuel up.
Yale, I suggest, should be a leader in resisting this trend. Through standing by our motto over “changing the world” through empiricism, we will shape better scholars and more competent thinkers in every field — science included. To ask our generation to reduce social issues to solvable truths is a limiting pursuit. We cannot let curiosity about our human condition take a backseat to the allure of scientific progress; both are necessary to understand the underlying problems of our society.
In a world in which too many ignorant men fail to see their own ignorance, we must guard our ability to question. Every beautiful or far-reaching truth we think we have discovered should always be met with the powerful or subtle temperance of light; every answer should be shrouded in an awareness of our human ambiguity. The most terrifying regimes of the 20th century insisted on having “solutions” to existence. They ignored the peaceful wisdom of uncertainty that has guided civilizations for thousands of years. In contrast, reigns of violence ground themselves in fearful certainty — the same certainty that has encouraged a disgusting movement of hate on our doorstep.
Václav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, recognized that the only way out of communism was for all of the nation’s people to constantly question the absurdity of our existence. It was Havel’s persistence against certainty that ultimately helped free the Czech people. This mindset — one that carefully considers the subjectivity of the human condition—is the greatest safeguard against terror and the most hopeful tool to seek meaning. In order to build a “more beautiful world,” we must embrace uncertainty.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .