To peruse the News’ archives is to enter another world. Consider the following quotations:
“It is important to recognize that education is not merely a fair-weather activity!”
“It seemed to me part of the Yale spirit to have people just slipping and sliding along in order to learn or teach.”
“I don’t think anything warrants the cancellation of classes. Semesters are ridiculously short as it is. Every day counts.”
The speakers, in order: University President Peter Salovey, former University Secretary Sheila Wellington EPH ’68 GRD ’68 and English professor Leslie Brisman.
Yale cancelled classes, citing the dangers of an impending snowstorm, on the Wednesday before spring break. By our count, this was the fourth snow-related cancellation of classes in the past three and a half years. Between 1978 and Winter Storm Nemo of 2013, which dumped 40 inches of snow on Hamden, Yale cancelled classes precisely zero times. During this period, thirty-five years in duration, the obstinacy of the Yale administration in the face of snow-related difficulties became an enduring part of the Yale ethos. It came to symbolize the devotion to education and a commitment to a particularly New England form of self-reliance.
Much has changed since then. The campus now whips itself into a state of virtual frenzy at the first sign of snow, and students eagerly await any notice of cancellation; the ineffable sturdiness with which we once conducted ourselves as storms closed down upon New Haven has disappeared.
The influx of Californians to Yale in the past thirty years aside, Yale’s increasing propensity to cancel classes in the face of snow is not a phenomenon entirely of its own making. The erosion of risk tolerance in American culture is a general trend, and visible wherever one cares to look — in stagnant rates of interstate migration, representing an unwillingness to take the kinds of economic risks formerly associated with American dynamism; in the drop in rates of entrepreneurialism in the United States, as measured by the foundation of startups since the late 1970s; and in the virtual disappearance of walking to school among primary school students, a nearly universal activity only a half-century ago.
The forces behind the recent spate of snow closures include the increasing legal-mindedness of the Yale administration, an over-confidence in the infallibility of meteorologists and a moderate decline in the centrality of the classroom to the Yale experience. Prior to the most recent cancellation of classes, for instance, forecasts — on which the administration based their decision — predicted a snowfall of around six inches by the time classes were set to begin. On the day, however, accumulation did not begin in earnest until the early evening. The impression left was one of palpable absurdity: streets empty, void of snow, yet students and administrators alike acting as if we had endured the storm of the century.
Part of this trend has been fueled by technological innovation. There was a time not so long ago when schools were canceled early in the morning, as students eagerly awaited the 6 a.m. radio or television broadcast that would clear their days’ schedules. Beginning with Hurricane Sandy, which caused power outages that forced justifiable week-long cancellations, schools discovered that classes could be canceled well in advance by making use of Honeywell phone systems — the night before, at the latest. And as our ability to cancel classes in advance developed, so the cancellation threshold decreased.
But it need not be this way. In a very straightforward sense, Yale could reserve the cancellation of classes for the very worst snow events, like the Blizzard of 1978 or Storm Nemo in 2013. This strategy would ease the burden on professors — who, in our anecdotal experience, have reacted exclusively negatively to the most recent cancellation — to reschedule classes. It would also establish a strict line in the sand for the use of cancellation in the future.
In a broader sense, though, we students could endeavor to come to terms with the fact of our geographic location: We could realize, in other words, that New Haven is actually a place, with all its accordant consequences. Perhaps this education in the face of winter could involve something along the lines of placing shovels in every residential college entryway and requiring students to clear the walkway out front. (The knock-on effects this might have on residential college bonding might be of some interest to Dean Chun.)
“There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather,” wrote the English critic and painter John Ruskin. We are of the same mind when it comes to snow: heavy, light or half-rain, snow is central to the essence of New England, offering a certain depth to our everyday sensory experiences. Rather than living in constant fear of what lies over the horizon, let us face the weather each day as Yalies have for over three hundred years: with heavy boots, furrowed brows and a healthy dose of hardiness.
Noah Daponte-Smith is a senior in Berkeley College and a former staff reporter for the News. Finnegan Schick is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a former University News editor. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .