Before I stepped on campus, I expected Yale to be an intellectual paradise. While convincing the admissions committee that I saw Yale as a place where students lie in hammocks reading Kant and discussing how Lovecraft’s integration of cosmicism influenced later horror authors on the way to class, I came to see Yale as the sunny Yale that lives on today in college pamphlets and in the collective American consciousness.
This Yale was the song on my computer screen and the blue T-shirt that arrived in the mail. As I sparred with friends and classmates over philosophy and literature while playing videogames, I looked forward greedily to the transcendental conversations of college. If profound, intellectual discussions were commonplace at a dinky public school in western Pennsylvania, surely an environment as cerebral as Yale must be a veritable rational smorgasboard.
When the dust of move-in day settled, I saw the Macha-esque preconception of Yale I had nurtured split at the seams.
My classmates, it turns out, are every bit as accomplished and intellectually cultivated as I had expected them to be. I find myself taken aback every day by the creativity and cognitive rigor my fellow Yalies exact upon their academic pursuits. But, in spite of this immense intellectual wealth, I found meaningful intellectual conversation to be stagnant outside of the sacred walls of the lecture hall. Corner a person on a topic, and one can educe from them a carefully curated position not dissimilar from the type of color-blind response a career politician would give for the record, I found. Given the quality of its intellectual hardware, the spirit of curiosity is curiously suppressed in the Yale student body.
One could eagerly chalk up such disparity between the body’s latent intellectual ability and expressed intellectual character to a graduated acclimatization. But I challenge this notion. At Pennsylvania’s Governor’s School for the Sciences, for instance, a program that yearly welcomes multiple Yale matriculants-to-be, I found such conversation to be ubiquitous.
Yalies know how to talk smart.
The problem is more structurally specific to Yale. Endemic to a diverse, accomplished student body is an unpredictably diffuse cultural and intellectual heritage. This is dangerous in conversation — you may never know which of your classmates has read Nietzsche’s complete works until your incongruous allusion to “Thus Spake Zarathustra” is met by a furrowed brow. This raises the stakes of the intellectual conversation. At a university where most students doubt on some level whether they truly deserve or belong, a carefully protected sense of adequacy is at risk when one ventures to the edge of one’s expertise — precisely where an intellectually curious conversation should develop. It wasn’t our true self that was admitted, the common sentiment runs, but some idealized form. And when we go out on a limb and make that reference to that Russian novel we didn’t read but have seen summarized, we imperil that perfection and risk having the imperfect, true and undeserving versions of ourselves made known. Among students trained to be the best, this is a terrifying thought.
Yalies are too afraid to be wrong.
This explains the relative abundance of political rhetoric at Yale. Because the University community operates under a legitimized neoliberal understanding, there are safe political positions. Few strangers will attempt to undermine rhetoric when it is directed at the sanctified end of equality. Doing so would risk appearing immoral. Neoliberal political thought, for better or for worse, is Yale’s intellectual “safe space.” Unfortunately, this sanctuary is not commonplace among the other areas of discourse — because there is no legitimized Yale literary canon, any claim made about the value of Russian literature would need to be logically defended and not merely asserted ad populum.
The solution is clear, yet difficult: In order to cultivate greater expressed curiosity, to enrich the quality of dining hall conversations and midnight arguments, Yalies need to eschew intellectual safety and embrace imperfection at all levels of organization. I’m very grateful to study in what I see to be the most intellectually vibrant Ivy, but here the collective needs to model the personal — we must as an institution be willing to risk momentary lapse from authority and look to enliven our intellectual sphere.
Even now, in the right circles, intellectualism is alive and well. But it is prolific to no greater degree than it was at Beaver Area High School. For all my Bobcat pride, I’d like to change that.
Josh Purtell is a first year in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .