A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my dorm room, having just turned on the kettle for some tea. I settled into some pillows, clutching a copy of Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko;” my friend had lent it to me. Not wanting to start schoolwork just yet, I typed Min Jin Lee’s name into Google in hopes of learning more about her trajectory to becoming a writer. In doing so, I stumbled upon an essay she had written for The New Yorker called “Stonehenge,” simultaneously discovering that she went to Yale. She encountered some of the same writing seminars that I have; she must have walked through Old Campus, listening to the same reverberations of bells from Harkness Tower. In the New Yorker essay, she reflects on her experiences at Yale, particularly moments of dissonance where she realizes that she grew up without the vocabulary many of her peers had.
She describes a classmate referencing Stonehenge a monument in Wiltshire, England, and her subsequent request for clarification. In return, her classmates throw her silent glances, baffled that she has never heard of the monument in question. This exact feeling is one that I and many of my peers have experienced in different ways. When I first came to Yale, I was struck by the number of casually-tossed words whose meaning I did not know. Some of my classmates discussed their elite private schools or selective New York public schools. Names like Hopkins, Styv (Stuvyesant) and Phillips Academy frequented conversations. I vaguely knew about these schools but had not processed that their names symbolized a shared experience for many. Those students already commanded membership into an exclusive community I didn’t even know existed. Some of them had encountered the texts of Plato, Aristotle and Euripides at their high schools before stepping foot on campus; I never had. Unlike them, I was unable to reference the last time I had analyzed the form of the dialectic, simply because I was reading these texts for the first time.
This semester, my friend is the only woman in a philosophy class focused on Heidegger. This doesn’t seem to bother her much, but it got me wondering about the ways in which the vocabularies and knowledge we grew up with and are exposed to from a young age shape our confidence — our perceptions of what spaces are open to us. There is a kind of mystique surrounding the supposed impermeability of texts like these: they exist not to be understood, or at least not to be approached by someone who has never approached them before. But in my mind, the power of studying philosophy is in seeing the way that seemingly convoluted strains of thought reveal themselves to be simply questions that we as humans, regardless of background, have about our lives. They’re questions about death, purpose, meaning, transience and permanence. We all should feel able to access these texts, whether or not we’ve encountered them before.
When we speak to one another as students over dinner, in classrooms, or the buttery, we should be conscious of the references we make. Having been at Yale for over three years now, I find myself referencing things I once could not define: the names of private high schools and places on campus like “the Lizzie” (The Elizabethan Club). When I talk with my parents over the phone, I have to explain what all of these things are; it is then that I recognize the insularity of our language here, the way that our vocabularies become markers of an elite knowledge.
The questions I’m asking here — of background and circumstance and how they imprint onto our choices — feel intractable, ingrained in the culture of an elite education. But both students and teachers can work towards allowing students access to a broad and inclusive education. Define Stonehenge. Don’t assume that everyone has traveled to the same places that you have. Define the dialectic, the Socratic method. Encourage students who have never encountered these texts to share their ideas. Clearly outline the process for coming to office hours. Describe what a close reading is, what a philosophy paper entails.
For the most part, these are things that we already try to do. But it’s always possible to do more. Regardless of what your experiences were before you stepped foot onto this campus, as long as you’re curious to learn, you have a place in whichever classroom you choose.
Meghana Mysore is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .