“If you had the decision to choose to be smart or kind, what would you choose?”
Although this sounds like a question that one-fifth of the student body is currently dissecting in “Psychology and the Good Life,” the words actually come from a sage much younger than Laurie Santos — Landon Danz, a third grader at Jefferson Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Landon’s question serves as the driving thought for an insightful opinion piece published alongside several others by his classmates in the Tulsa World, my local newspaper, on the last day of a turbulent 2017. After finishing a unit on opinion writing at Jefferson, third grade teachers asked their students to practice writing their own pieces. Some of the columns produced by the exercise were so good that the teachers were able to have them published in the paper.
Rather than attempt to “hack happiness,” as the noble Padawans of Eudaimonia are currently learning to do in PSYC 157, Landon decided to argue for kindness in a more natural way — by relying on moral intuition: “You will have friends and you will not be lonely … You will have people to help you through life.”
In other words — oh, wait. Landon’s writing makes complete sense. As do his classmates’ equally brilliant little inquiries into such topics as drugs, hunger, the power of words and the importance of sewing. In fact, these words, penned by third graders from a predominantly low-income school in one of the country’s most underfunded states in education, make a lot more sense than many of Yale’s students and faculty do on a regular basis.
For example, one student, Michael, reminds us that drinking too much alcohol can make you “do bad things without knowing it.” He continues, “You might hurt people with your words or with your hands if you are mad because of alcohol.” Meanwhile, as campus sexual assault rates continue to rise, the university and the CCE program insist on alcohol’s innocence. People who have dealt with alcohol issues in their family — or truly all people with a basic sense of right and wrong — know that drinking too much can make a person dangerous or vulnerable. I’m not quite sure why it should take a child to make us realize an obvious truth.
The premise for Yale’s all-time most popular course also hinges on the nonsensical. Essentially, the “Good Life” asks us to forget our basic, but crucial ability to question our emotions and guide them according to our duties to society, to those we love and to ourselves. Instead, the course substitutes our moral awareness for a large scale, Oral Roberts-esque, TED-Talk-turned-sermon that preaches self-help theory as pop-science gospel. This mode of inquiry strips us of the natural reasoning skills that each of these third graders expressed, skills that not only would allow us to better question the world, but might actually do a better job making us happy.
I was so impressed by the students that I decided to write a Letter to the Editor praising their writing and their teachers’ excellent guidance. A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to speak to the kids about opinion writing and going to Yale. It was humbling to listen to young minds express themselves with optimism and genuine curiosity. In their pieces, and in the way they asked questions, the students addressed several fundamental issues about people and how we should act towards one another. They expressed opinions in a way that we rarely do at Yale: through honest and morally guided discourse.
Unfortunately, the “Good Life” may be correct that we are desperately unhappy — even as undergraduates at one of the world’s most luxurious colleges — and that the happiness we do seek is misguided. My friends and I face issues of self-doubt more now than ever before in our lives. But I find it hard to believe that an external and clinical solution to happiness is sustainable. The “hack yo-self project,” the final research paper in the “Good Life,” probably won’t help us answer our existential dread.
But maybe the “kid yo-self project” will.
After speaking with the students, I visited their classrooms to talk individually with the kids and look at their writing. One girl wrote a lovely story about her new niece. She began by saying that she hated her niece for taking all of the family’s attention and just wanted her to disappear. But she didn’t stop there. She continued, writing that she truly thinks her niece is incredibly cute and that, deep down, knows that she loves her very much.
Her response was simple, but strikingly honest and kind. Maybe that’s the answer to our stress and mental anxieties: Sometimes, we need to transcend our worries and embrace our most essential intuitions about what is right.
Thanks for the wake-up call, kids.
Leland Stange is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .