Earlier this year, NBC News introduced professor Laurie Santos in an online article with the headline, “Can you actually learn to be happier?” The subtitle: “Yale professor Laurie Santos believes so.” As many of us recall, Santos’ “Psychology and the Good Life” class brought Santos into national prominence. But when my friends ask if I regret not taking the course, I tell them I absolutely do not — and the stories I’ve since heard about the course confirm that my feelings are not misplaced.
In one instance, 1,200 Yale students heard Laurie Santos proclaim, “This is not happiness!” as she projected the logos of Goldman Sachs and other finance firms onto her lecture screen. The message was clear: chasing money won’t make you happy, and working for problematic institutions won’t sit well with your conscience. But the irony of this episode — and of the course as a whole — was not lost on me: a successful professor at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions, who lives for free in a mansion on our campus, was telling students that they should be less ambitious and not concern themselves with money.
Personally, I’m tired of rich people telling me that I shouldn’t want the money they already have. When I told Professor Santos that I was considering an internship offer from a consulting firm, she said, “We’ll need to talk about that.” But last week, as I scrolled through LinkedIn, I stumbled across a post from The Blackstone Group: “Blackstone Yale University alumni hosted Laurie Santos … [who] discussed research on happiness covered in her groundbreaking course, ‘Psychology and the Good Life,’ the most popular course in Yale’s history.” I was surprised to see a picture of a professor who had discouraged me and other students from working at places like Blackstone speaking to them herself.
When I later asked her why she agreed to do the talk, she said she was “asked to visit Blackstone by Yale as part of an alumni event” and that she believed the “folks at Blackstone in particular really needed to hear [her] message and to see the science that backs [her] claims up.” It’s an optimistic and perhaps admirable vision, but Santos’ tepid solutions are exactly what that audience wanted to hear: individualized, feel-good strategies to make society happier instead of systemic change that would reimagine society altogether, including the role that corporatists like those at Blackstone will have in that society.
No wonder the elites of Blackstone — and Aspen and Davos, where Santos has also shared her ideas — have embraced Santos’ theories. Her ideas ignore the ways in which plutocrats have manufactured an unequal society that simply cannot be happy. Santos spent an entire semester refusing to acknowledge these factors, choosing to blame us for an unhappiness crisis we didn’t create. Now, she happily agrees to speak to those responsible for that crisis at Yale’s behest. In so doing, Santos willfully neglects the relevant social and economic forces that make us unhappy, anxious and financially insecure and that push us towards lucrative careers in the first place.
But Santos’ hypocrisy does not exist in a vacuum and is in fact emblematic of Yale’s larger failures as an institution and of the ways in which this university contradicts its supposed values.
In his Baccalaureate address during last year’s Commencement, President Salovey said he is in favor of “the transformative power of a liberal education — one that asks you to think broadly, question everything and embrace the joy of learning.” But he and his administration refuse to finance non-traditional liberal arts programs like Ethnicity, Race and Migration and instead funnel students into more pre-professional majors. Moreover, through the Student Income Contribution and the high price of tuition, Salovey makes achieving those lofty goals that he describes a mere dream for so many students. They wonder why we are so concerned with applying to lucrative jobs, why we don’t simply “embrace the joy of learning,” while ignoring all the ways in which they have made it impossible to do so.
It’s time to question — seriously and loudly — the values of this university and its faculty. When popularity and media buzz are how we measure a class’s success, it’s time to ask more questions. When President Salovey and Dean Chun prioritize pre-professionalism over the liberal arts, it’s time to ask more questions. When the actions of our professors directly contradict the values they publicly espouse, it’s time to ask more questions. And when Yale actively contributes to the problems in this world it’s supposed to solve, it’s time to ask more questions.
DEVIN O’BANION is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .