Speaking to the largest first-year class in Yale’s history, University President Peter Salovey on Saturday urged students to study widely and embrace multiple perspectives.
“As inspired as you might be by a single idea or way of looking at the world, I suggest that you entertain many different ways of thinking and consider various points of view,” Salovey said at the annual Opening Assembly in Woolsey Hall. “Try them all on. See what fits you best.”
In his speech, Salovey discussed the old distinction between the consistent but inflexible hedgehog and the wily, resilient fox. Invoking the 20th-century philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Salovey described the hedgehog as committed to a single vision and the fox as knowledgeable about a wide variety of topics.
“At this stage of your education, I want to urge you to emulate the fox,” Salovey said. “The beauty of a liberal arts education — the education Yale College offers — is that it liberates you from having to pursue a narrow, vocationally oriented program of study.”
Although there is much to admire in the single-mindedness of the hedgehog, he said, Yale undergraduates should strive to broaden their horizons — and develop a specific expertise later.
In past addresses, Salovey has occasionally waded into social and political debates. His first address as president in 2013 focused on socioeconomic mobility and the American Dream. And two years ago, Salovey used his address to open a campuswide discussion about the naming of Calhoun College.
That speech helped spark an 18-month debate that led to the renaming of Calhoun in February, in honor of the pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper GRD ’34.
But this year, in his address to the class of 2021, Salovey steered clear of controversy. Instead, he delivered a message that formed the centerpiece of his speech last year as well: Engage with ideas and perspectives that differ from your own.
Salovey drew on Hopper’s biography, as well as the lives of the two new residential college namesakes, Benjamin Franklin and Anna “Pauli” Murray LAW ’65. All three were “exemplary foxes,” he said.
“Foxes don’t get information only from sources with which they agree. When confronted by contrary ideas, the fox says, ‘Bring it on,’” Salovey said. “Foxes are resilient. And they not only respond better to challenges — they may even be able to predict what challenges they will face down the road better than their hedgehog friends.”
Salovey wrote much of the speech during a vacation in the Adirondacks in July. Initially, he planned to detail the advice he wished he had received in his first year of college.
“As I got writing, it started to feel a little bit cliche, like the kind of speech that could be given by anyone,” Salovey said in an interview. “And so it evolved into the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog.”
The ceremony at Woolsey was also marked by Marvin Chun’s first speech as Yale College dean. To laughter from the crowd, Chun recounted his early academic struggles and urged students to ignore their smartphones when they study.
The opening of the two new colleges allowed Yale to increase the size of the first-year class to nearly 1,600 students, making it the largest in the University’s history. As they streamed out of Woolsey, first-years interviewed said Salovey’s words had left them newly energized.
Mimi Kostoska ’21 said Chun’s endearing stories about his below-average grades and Salovey’s speech about the fox and hedgehog made her confident that Yale would prepare her well for the real world.
Ellie Grossman ’21 said Salovey’s speech offered an important message to the first-year class. At her high school, she said, most students were hedgehogs rather than foxes.
But not all first years at Woolsey shared that enthusiasm. To Becca Rubright ’21, the fox-hedgehog analogy seemed overly simplified.
“You can’t split people like that on such a simple basis,” Rubright said.
Brian Tevlin ’21 said the address epitomized the magic of arriving on campus after a lifetime of anticipation.
“You’ve dreamed about this all your life, and it’s kind of surreal,” Tevlin said.
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