Recent conversations at Yale have centered on “celebrity intellectuals” and the tendency for the University to spend large amounts of money on big name speakers, as opposed to scholars who are well-respected in their fields.
A recent column in the News cited the Kerry Initiative — which has brought people like Leonardo DiCaprio to campus to discuss climate issues — as an example of this phenomenon.
It asserted that trade-offs exist when we focus on celebrity intellectuals. Even though many students attended the Kerry-led climate conference, perhaps the time that students spent at the event would have been better spent engaging with climate scientists or campus environmental groups.
It is worth considering the tension between whom we are learning from versus whom should we be learning from. On one level, celebrity intellectuals distance us from the already-existing resources of the University. On the other hand, it is easy to get trapped in the Yale bubble; we become exclusively focused on the views of our professors and those around us, while forgetting that people outside of the University have different — and valid — opinions.
Yale ranks so highly as a school because of its world class faculty. Yale professors are frequently cited, published and recognized with such accolades as the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. This concentration of excellence makes us students begin to filter the validity of the information we learn through the resumes of our professors. The resulting cults of personality we ascribe to our teachers form the basis of the Yale intellectual bubble.
For the most part, this filter makes sense. After all, I would rather be taught chemistry by someone distinguished in the field than someone who has never stepped foot in a lab, but, in subjects that are less formulaic, such as art history, this filter prevents us from hearing legitimate viewpoints.
For example, in my art history section a few weeks ago, we were looking at a 1928 lithograph entitled “Stick ’Em Up” by Mabel Dwight in the Yale University Art Gallery. The picture shows a packed cinema filled with caricature like audience members. On the screen, a masked marauder wearing a Spanish-style hat and wearing a menacing sneer points a gun out at us.
The conversation on the piece largely focused on the bandit. We discussed how confrontational he appeared and the fact that he seemed to be Mexican in contrast to the predominantly white audience. Our analysis repeatedly sought to portray him as the bad guy.
A YUAG security guard began to walk a little closer to our group before whispering in passing “that’s Zorro.” Our teaching fellow noticed him and stopped. A little confused as to what was happening, she asked him to repeat himself. He said, “That’s Zorro, he is a good guy. I remember this character from my childhood.” Our TF thanked him before noting she didn’t know whether or not this was Zorro, and the class fell silent. We had a choice: We could either believe the security guard, whose point invalidated our analysis, or believe our TF, who passed our filter test but brought us down this incompatible path.
Red in the face, the security guard apologized for interrupting our class before resuming his post. I looked up Zorro afterwards and saw that the security guard was likely correct, but what stuck with me more was our class’s inability to accept his input as valid when we so readily accepted our own speculation.
Here was a man whose life experience gave him a point of access to this picture our class could never have had, yet we remained hesitant to incorporate it into our discussion. Through this interaction, I saw the Yale intellectual bubble in action and how it pushed away a learning opportunity.
We will most often learn from our professors, but at times when people outside of the Yale intellectual bubble try to speak up and offer their thoughts, they should not feel embarrassed or feel the need to apologize. We go to a school that supposedly champions differences of opinion, yet the response of my class implied that this principle only applied to people within the bubble. We must recognize that knowledge is not trapped in the minds of Ivy League students, their professors and the horcruxes that are their credentials. We have something to learn from everyone.
Caleb Rhodes is a first year in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .