Yalies, like so many graduates of elite universities, are guilty of believing we have all the answers. Whether buried in books or screens, we believe soaking up information makes us knowledgeable. We are so obsessed with information accumulation that we rarely get through the full substance of a reading — diminishing marginal returns, we say. So we subscribe to daily news headlines rather than peruse the newspaper. We quite literally Zoom through our classes at two times speed. Our fetishization of productivity has made us shallow thinkers and exacerbated our short attention spans. And yet, we delude ourselves that we are the smartest people in the world.
Not only do we feel smarter than our elders, we strive to outsmart each other. That’s part of why we obsess over information: it’s all a competition. We’ve made displays of intellect a sport, conferring self-worth for the victors and humiliation for the rest. And everything from grades to casual conversations is part of the game. We’ve commodified “knowledge” to compete for that feeling of intellectual and moral superiority.
But this has come at the expense of that common good: truth.
Increasingly, the divide between left and right is an educational one. Those with a college education increasingly vote Democrat and identify as consistently liberal. Are liberals just smarter than conservatives? Many reading this might think so.
Maybe that’s why after college, we concentrate in highly-educated hubs far away from those reactionary hillbillies in flyover country. We can see this already — Yalies choose to congregate in lavish off-campus apartments and townhouses in the Dwight and East Rock neighborhoods.
From this distance, we don’t have to interact with the uneducated other. Safe amongst our tribe, we ignore our feelings of inadequacy by externalizing this competition onto others far away, where we’ll be sure to win. The uneducated are to blame for their backwardness, we claim. In our zero-sum game, the degreeless feel increasingly worthless so we can feel better about ourselves.
This externalization is most easily justified along political lines because people are free to choose what to believe. Republicans, Trump supporters and conservatives are dolts under this logic. Their political disagreement must come from a lack of education, we say. In our attempts to educate away the supposed prejudice of these people, we have prejudiced them by failing to know them.
My guess is most Yalies do not know a Trump supporter well, let alone consider befriending one. And yet, we have the gall to look down on them as “deplorables.” The same mindset applies to Republicans. We believe we’re so smart that we can understand the perspective shared by a group of people who we don’t know. But our delusion of intellectual and moral superiority prevents us from giving them the dignity of dialogue.
The complement to condemning the uneducated outgroup is to purify the educated ingroup on campus. The educated cannot feel justified in their opinions if other educated people go around contradicting them. Their solution has been to moralize discourse to make it socially and even professionally dangerous to voice one’s dissenting opinion. We enforce conformity of opinion to get the psychological benefit of feeling right and safe.
The psychic bubbles that we create blind us to the realities outside our entryways. This is why we failed to predict the 2008 financial crisis, Trump and Brexit. Our elite cloistering, even within the same cities, impedes the gathering, coordinating and testing of information. Just think for a moment: if a few Yalies chose to live in Springfield, Illinois or Lowell, Massachusetts instead of Evanston outside of Chicago or Brookline outside of Boston, maybe someone would have foreseen the rise of a demagogue like Donald Trump from the devastation afflicting working-class communities.
For all the certainty we believe a Yale education gives to our beliefs, there’s no escaping the limits of lived experience. We can load up on as much education as humanly possible, but that will only get us so far, as shown in the tendency now for Yalies to cut corners in their learning. We are not and will never be omniscient. We are not gods.
The fatal error Yalies make is thinking our experience is more legitimate than others. The truth is our lifetime of information accumulation cannot substitute for the suffering and joy of direct experience. Yale might give us superior analytical skills, but it also limits our perspectives.
If we wish to progress knowledge, we must humbly confess our limited experience. We are humans, far more ignorant and fallible than we wish to believe. We must not be so quick to squander ancestral knowledge which has been accumulated for millennia or the experiences of those we disagree with.
We gain the most by learning from those who have different experiences that shape their beliefs to be different from ours. This is why we should seek diversity and dialogue — to expand our horizon of experience. When conflicting experiences arise, this is an opportunity for checking our blind spots, to see where we might be wrong. Comparing our experience against theirs, we can evaluate the quality of our experience on the factors that influence it and verify its validity by the quantity of its corroborators. This humble analysis forwards the progress of knowledge. Without this, our campus culture merely fulfills the age-old aphorism: knowledge is power. But with a dose of epistemic humility, we can leave the darkness of the cave and integrate ourselves into a greater, shared reality.
ETHAN DODD is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.