You are extraordinary. You go to a school that has an acceptance rate of less than 6.5–7 percent (thanks class of 2021.) You study under and among the world’s leading minds; you attend an idyllic, storied institution. It took a lot to get here, and even then, your acceptance was by no means guaranteed (unless you’re a legacy). And above all of these extraordinary facts, you are uniquely you. Your interests might range from history to molecular, cellular and developmental biology; you might play for a varsity team and sing in an a cappella group. Hell, this description might fit more than a single person here. Put simply, you are special — like a snowflake. You are uniquely you, [insert your name here].
Except there are lots of people at this school, even if we’re at a “small” university in Connecticut. There are probably lots of other people in your major, maybe even hundreds. There are countless pre-med, pre-law, pre-consulting students out there, just like you. And let’s not even think about the fact that you’re just here at a particular moment in time.
Actually, let’s. Think about all the classes that came before you, all of the hundreds and thousands of people who had the same interests, the same background, the same aspirations. You’re an editor at the News? How special, there’ll never be another like you — oh wait, the next editor is sitting in front of you for their desk edit, and one day, they’ll be in the same position. And even that’s not special, considering this system has been in place for the last one hundred and forty years. You write columns for the News? Yeah, there haven’t been enough columnists in the past century. Even if you call yourself a part of something new, whether you be a PauliMur, a member of the latest group or a statistics and data science major, the novelty of each of those things is ephemeral. There will be more colleges (the mascot for Schwartzman College? Schwartzmen); there will be more groups and there will be more majors. If it’s the case that we’re each a snowflake, then we’re a part of the latest nor’easter.
I once had a professor who emphasized a particular quote from Edmund Burke, the famed critic of the French Revolution. To paraphrase Burke, custom, history, tradition — this is the bedrock of civilization. Without a meaningful connection to tradition in all of its forms, we “would become little better than the flies of summer.” We’d melt as soon as our crystalline composition graced the ground. We need an established layer of snow or frozen ground to stick. Tradition fulfills that role.
Burke would have thought that we’d come to the right place, then. After all, “Yale is at once a tradition …” But what happens when tradition erases the individual, when tradition is so overbearing there’s no escaping it? I once read about a student who passed away in a car crash in the ’80s. Some people said he could have been president. Another student who passed away just a few years ago had a bright future ahead of her. She was a young writer, and we can only imagine the heights to which she would have soared. But even in death, there’s a degree to which these students’ individuality is lost, or at least diminished. The death of any young person is tragic, but there’s always an added sense of tragedy when we learn that the deceased went to Yale. After all, this is a place that produces presidents and Pulitzer Prize winners. In this sense, Yale is a brand that we will carry forever, happily more than otherwise. And even those among us who would seek to distance ourselves from Yale because it’s elitist or evil will never be able to deny that the Yale name grants them immeasurable benefits.
But where would we be without a connection to something larger than ourselves? It’s no coincidence that classes like “The Life Worth Living,” and “Psychology and the Good Life” are insanely popular. While we’re not the Lost Generation, we’re lost in a different sense. In a world that tells us to value the ephemeral, in a world that tells us to mock and scorn the very idea of the eternal, it’s easy to see why so many wonder about how to lead a good life, a worthy life.
On the question of individuality and tradition, then, as with so many others, the answer involves balance. Balance between losing yourself among your many predecessors and the hubris of thinking that you are so much different than those next to you, those who came before you and those who will come after you. Marina Keegan ’12, the writer I referenced earlier, wrote in an essay published in the News that we all think ourselves special. A future generation, “flying its tiny cars,” as she wrote, would be no exception. “Until one day, vaguely, quietly, the sun would flicker out and they’d realize that none of us are. Or that all of us are.”
Adrian Rivera is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.