I recently realized that I adopt the vernacular of a dental office receptionist when I make dinner plans. I’ve described full weeks as “fully booked, unfortunately.” Last week, I told a friend that I would “pencil him in.” At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before I start dropping off appointment reminder cards at the front doors of suites.
I’ll admit that perhaps I tend more toward the language of midlevel corporate hacks than most. But the practice itself of getting meals — no, turning dinners into slots to fill with a wide net of Yalies, from acquaintances to close friends, as a pillar of the Yale experience — is not.
There’s nothing wrong with “getting meals.” It’s certainly a sensible practice: We’re all busy, but we all still eat once in a while. I’ve “gotten meals” to catch up with people I don’t normally run into or to get to know someone new.
But it’s an odd thing, treating meals as appointments. My hunch is it’s not something most normal 19 year olds do. At Yale, it’s almost instinctual. I know first years who have already started “booking” meals.
There’s something deeper behind that instinct — that tendency at Yale to act so pragmatically and transactionally, so early on.
Most of us are institutionalists. To be an institutionalist is both to believe in and to navigate the system deftly. It is to color inside the lines. It is to live a life of profound predictability.
Naturally, it is almost exclusively institutionalists who make it to Yale. The dreamers — those who’ve got a passion for the spontaneous — are filtered out by the bureaucratic hoops we opted to jump through. Sure, there are different brands of institutionalists at Yale (leftist! artsy! activist!) but we mainly love the system because the system has been good to us.
And because we love the system, we perpetuate it. It’s not just scheduling meals. It’s the relentless push in all of us to become bureaucrats-in-training.
It’s the attractiveness of “selective” academic programs, like Directed Studies and Global Affairs, to first years fresh off the Common Application. It’s Yale’s a cappella groups collectively deciding — against all semblance of sanity — that “rush meals” are a worthwhile and necessary use of time. It’s an inconsequential New Haven alder campaign treating itself like some billion-dollar presidential charade. It’s the jockeying for positions with long titles and little substance: team leader of this, program coordinator of that (see: Yale College Council).
I’m convinced that President Donald Trump’s election was an especially hard sting to Yale not just because of the candidate’s flaws but because the election of a wholly unqualified bull in a china shop represented a rejection by America of this system, the system we at Yale swear by. At best, it was a rejection of the orderly and organized. At worst, it was a rejection of the calculated and cunning.
It’s trite by now, joking about our packed Google Calendars. But it’s also genuinely tragic. Some of my favorite moments at Yale have been decidedly spontaneous: the dinner evolving into a three-hour stroll around New Haven, the seminar conversation spilling over into Silliman College’s courtyard, the serendipitous meeting of a friend on Prospect Street. Imagine missing those kinds of moments for a 6:25 p.m. dinner at Branford College.
Unsurprising, then, is the reality that so many Yalies end up in the career equivalents of a 6:25 p.m. dinner at Branford: finance, management consulting, medicine. They are straightforward — rewarding, even — but deeply predictable. They are structured and hierarchical and reward those who resist the impromptu.
Maybe I’m being hypocritical. To be fair, I’m a card-carrying member of the Yale bureaucracy. If you don’t believe me, look me up on LinkedIn. But there are still small changes I — we — can make. We can set aside time — maybe even a whole weekend! — once in a while to read something outside of a class. When was the last time you did that? We can take walks, maybe with a friend or maybe blissfully alone. We can write, not for someone or something else but for ourselves. If we’re going to be bureaucrats, fine. We’re actually pretty good at it. But let’s keep one eye planted firmly on something bigger than that. It’ll make us feel happier and it’ll nourish us much more than an hour-long conversation at Berkeley over mezze.
Emil Friedman is a sophomore in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .