“Yale students are incredibly mature.” I can hardly count the number of times that I have heard this statement, often uttered to celebrate the student body’s work ethic and dedication. At Yale and beyond, we applaud those who “grow up” faster than most, these precocious heroes who escape from the grip of immaturity to embark on a never-ending quest for personal achievement.
For those who subscribe to this view, childlike innocence becomes an adorable but undesirable burden. The archetypical child is messy, unproductive and sensitive; the ideal Yalie is driven, efficient and resilient. Some of our classmates ran businesses in high school; others took college-level classes and worked at NGOs. Before even entering the gates of the University, all had already developed a panoply of adult-like habits, many of which require the abandonment of insouciance and naivete.
This trend extends beyond Yale itself. Without exception, the bastions of American meritocracy mass produce 20-year-olds who have long forgotten their childlike selves. The lives of “successful” high schoolers oscillate between SAT prep, hectic schedules and mechanical habits. Wannabe elites sacrifice their teenage nonchalance to get into a good university, where they sacrifice their free time to get a good internship, where they sacrifice their summer to get a competitive job, where they sacrifice their youth to get a promotion.
Every step of the way, their personality changes. As their shelves accumulate self-help books, the new members of the managerial class strategize their every move. They turn friendships into “networking,” smiles into performative PR and passion into profit. More independent than ever, these rising stars barely need their parents anymore — in fact, they can hardly remember to call home without assigning a slot on Google Calendar.
Last month, a leaked survey from Goldman Sachs exposed the reality of this life to which many of us aspire. Asked to rate their mental health on a scale of 1 to 10, employees answered 2.8 on average. Analysts gave a 2.3 to their physical health, a 2 to their general satisfaction, a 2 to the quality of their work life and a 1 to their personal life. One respondent wrote, “The sleep deprivation, the mental and physical stress. … I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse.” Another added, “My body physically hurts all the time and mentally I’m in a really dark place.” Throughout the survey, employees used the words “anxiety,” “pain” and “inhumane” dozens of times.
Yet none of us would expect these analysts to quit their job anytime soon. Why? Because they have sacrificed too much, and — in the process — have retained too little. Sleepless nights, lost summers and continuous anxieties come to justify this lifestyle of endless self-drain. When we come to adulthood too early, we become incapable of returning to a state of childlike bliss.
Of course, we should not trap ourselves into perpetual immaturity. One of the University’s main functions is to facilitate the transition from our familial cocoons to the “real world.” But there are many childlike qualities to which we should hold on. Where most of us self-censor, the archetypical child speaks freely. Where most of us accept pre-fabricated paths, our younger selves dared to experiment, to ridicule themselves, to sacrifice common sense on the altar of imagination. More broadly, where our institutions reward cynics, we have every reason to cultivate and celebrate the virtue of innocence. Authenticity, unfiltered honesty, imagination — these are qualities about which the average Yalie has much to learn from the average 7-year-old.
Naturally, this accelerated child-adult transition is the product of social trends that we cannot alter by ourselves. As Michael Sandel observes in “The Tyranny of Merit,” America’s institutions of elite-production rely upon a series of dogmas — an obsession with efficiency and productivity, a disregard of the common good, a disdain for the unquantifiable and an aversion to structural reform — that entrench the obligation to “grow up” in deeply unhealthy ways.
Trapped in this web of perverse incentives, Yalies may find adopting a childlike innocence futile. Yet we can all make our inner child ageless by cultivating certain habits and virtues. We can, for instance, force ourselves to tell the truth whenever doing so may prove inconvenient. We can also preserve a sense of spontaneity by avoiding the calendar-obsessed mechanization of the quotidian.
More generally, we can cease to raise our children by “preparing them for the real world,” and prepare the real world — one step at a time — for the flourishing of ageless children.