Understanding an argument is like taking apart a bike: you dismantle it slowly, step by step, piece by piece, until you can see, feel and decipher each part. But if you never reassemble a bike, you’re left with useless fragments incapable of an afternoon cycle down Orange Street. Likewise, without constructing an original argument in place of disassembled ideas, our work lacks utility and our arguments lack any meaning.
Yale students carry a jumble of mental deconstructions. We resolutely criticize but are often unsure how ideas we dismantle might be pieced together again. Students fixate upon criticism because it requires less intellectual energy. In every humanities course I’ve taken at Yale, several familiar buzzwords, like “problematic,” “hegemonic” or “unrepresentative,” have permeated academic conversation. Often, these critiques are perfectly justified as the beginning of a holistic discussion. But that’s just it — the beginning. Too often, they become the entire discussion, precluding constructive thinking about an idea.
We students also rarely advance our own ideas in the classroom because doing so requires vulnerability. We feel vindicated when we are able to show how someone else has failed. But to advance a new argument — not simply point out that you think the reading was “problematic” — opens us up to criticisms similar to those we nonchalantly levy against the scholarship itself.
This risk aversion — the same type that sustains grade inflation, ensures nobody mentions their GPA and perpetuates the concept of gut classes — allows us to sit around and nod as each person takes turns bashing 300 pages of scholarship. I fear one could graduate Yale without the formative experience of trying out a new idea and watching it fail.
Yet a deeper issue fuels our hypercritical speak. Students, eager to explore the intersection of our identities and academia, disparage works that don’t directly encompass our experiences. Counterintuitively, I’ve always learned most about myself when attempting to reconcile foreign ideas with my self-conception. We hurt ourselves by banishing seemingly irrelevant or exclusionary ideas to protect our burgeoning identities.
The opportunity to develop one’s own identity is a vital part of college. But in a Yale classroom – where the alleged selling point is student diversity — it seems wasteful to avoid material because it fails to apply to everyone sitting at the table. There are ample academic opportunities, like the senior thesis, that afford us time to explore topics of immediate personal relevance.
Faculty endorse hypercritical discussion in their own ways. Professors often allow students to “piggyback” off one piece of critical flotsam to the next, all while the subject matter drifts, unexamined, into the deep. For some faculty, this is “diversity”: a barrage of attacks on white, male writers instead of a deeply considered syllabus in which authorial diversity is embedded. In this regard, hypercriticism ignores a well-worn model of good scholarship, allows students to critique without constructing and perpetuates endemic cynicism.
Great scholarship doesn’t erase past work, it advances it by substituting poor arguments for sound ones. While some might question preserving the works of history’s bigots, academic credibility hinges on a demonstrated understanding of the people who thought and wrote before us. It is both practically and intellectually more fruitful to build upon a thought than to ignore one.
Our era of academic intervention, preoccupied with recovering lost narratives and subverting conventional arguments, demands more detailed and responsive scholarship. Recent scholars have broadened the parameters of available material and promoted a markedly more comprehensive curriculum by deconstructing outdated arguments and replacing them with their own. Oddly enough, many Yale faculty who indulge shallow criticism in the seminar setting established their careers by translating disagreements with existing scholarship into substantial research. Why should Yale’s sacred roundtable discussions expect less of their participants?
As we lean into a habit of hypercriticism, we invariably fall into cynicism. After four years, we may leave Yale feeling powerless to improve anything concrete because our education was a highlight reel of studying other’s failures. If our deconstruction is to have meaning or effect, we must courageously construct something new in its place.
We should never stop thinking critically. But as I enter my final year at Yale, I am considering critique as the starting point, not the destination, of my academic discussions. I want to leave here with more than a mental junkyard of problematized thoughts.
Students should experiment with critical thought to promote human betterment. After all, critique is merely the first step in the larger intellectual challenge of improvement. Let’s try some different buzzwords — replace, restore, consolidate, improve and create. If we each find a way to construct original ideas in our academic conversations, we’ll be forging our own individual voice in the collective conversation. And maybe, just maybe, the subjects of our criticism may be less problematic in the future.
Ethan Young is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .