Intellectual inequality exists at Yale. Some students are better prepared to succeed at Yale. They have developed their critical thinking skills and can speak the language of the institution. Provincials like me — if you can call a young man from suburban Indianapolis provincial — must compete with peers who had vastly different pre-Yale experiences.
Take two students. The first is a young man of the upper-middle class. His mom is a professor, his dad a doctor. He grew up discussing politics at the kitchen table. All of his adult relatives have earned at least their bachelor’s degrees. He’s used to pondering things, and his way of talking suggests a practiced elegance. School is hard, but not significantly harder than high school. He knows what he’s interested in and started college right off the bat exploring those interests.
The second is a young man who went to a good public school. He also works hard. His father earned a bachelor’s degree and works in automation, and his mother, after the divorce, had to take a job in retail. His mom reads. His dad doesn’t like to. Conversation at home revolves around the facts of situations: What happened? When? Who did it? But conversation seldom approaches analysis: Why did it happen? What motivated the actors? Why did it motivate them? These are questions of deeper engagement. During Bulldog Days, he was dazzled by the accomplishments and sharpness of his peers. He fell in love with Yale, a place that loves ideas. Only his third to last semester did he really come to grips with how his pre-Yale experience shapes the way he thinks, speaks and acts on campus. I am this young man.
I once believed that we all entered Yale at the same starting line. Those who run the greatest distance — that is to say, those who make the most improvement — would be rewarded. But intellectual inequality exists. We don’t start at the same place. It’s hard to undo the first 18 years. You can’t redo high school. You can’t change the cultural and intellectual environments that you grew up in.
The problem is the allocation of academic goods. Those who win professors’ praise, who win fellowships, who earn academic distinction, are those who can speak the language of the institution. Initial legs up matter. Those who start strong are in a self-reinforcing cycle. They feel more confident and know more about how to complete the task at hand. Their work isn’t always better, but at least they’ve had practice. Professors reward good work. If a professor sees potential, they might, understandably, spend more time cultivating a student’s mind. The student then feels confident in their thoughts. They don’t fear contributing to conversation, so they articulate more. And so the cycle goes. Our reward system seems to maintain the initial intellectual gap. What matters is not the greatest distance we run, but the farthest mile marker we reach.
The problem isn’t a question of inherent ability. Everybody has the capacity to think and think well. The problem is the reward system. What do we reward? Whom do we reward? Why do we reward them?
At Yale, it wouldn’t make sense not to praise the best. The institution wants to produce the best. Students want to be the best. We came to Yale to be surrounded by people who would challenge us. We students should expect excellence. Professors should create absolute standards to which we rise, and grades are, more than anything, absolute measures of achievement. They’re powerful motivators. We didn’t come merely to be patted on the head for a job well-done. However, grades demonstrate mastery more than growth over a semester. Some professors try to reflect a student’s growth in a grade, but that’s generally not the case. If Yale is a place of learning and we truly recognize the impacts that intellectual inequality has on Yale experiences, then those who run the farthest distance should be valued just as those who reach the finish line the fastest.
Intellectual inequality is a difficult problem because there’s nobody to blame and no quick fix. We can’t blame people for their life experiences. But we can’t just throw resources at students to equalize the playing field. It can’t be assumed that students understand their disadvantage and how to overcome it. Instead, administrators, professors and students shouldn’t forget how different pre-Yale intellectual experiences are. Knowledge, skills, work habits and social abilities vary immensely. Yale the institution does this in a variety of ways, with precollege preparatory programs and tutoring resources galore. It could do more. But what’s most important is to shed light on the fact that intellectual inequality exists. In the meantime, students must develop resilience. We must have grit. To think deeply and articulate gracefully requires work. We shouldn’t forget what goes into doing the best.
George Gemelas is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .