Made to choose between Zoom University or taking time off last year, many Yale students rightfully questioned what a Yale education is for. Campus is still dealing with the disruption of the pandemic. Many extracurriculars are struggling to cement commitment in leadership and rank and file alike as students of all ages seek a better work-life balance and underclassmen especially have replaced the typical extracurricular regime with internships. Unsurprisingly, a year of isolation has made Yalies more reticent to commit to others, even if it might be for their own good. In this flux, it is no worse a time than ever to ask the perennial question: Why are we here?
Excellence to Every End
Many Yalies choose to come here for what stuffy intellectuals call the life of the mind. Claudia Meng ’23 explains that she has wanted to attend Yale since coming to New Haven at age 14 for a debate competition.
“I loved Yale,” Meng said. “I thought it was artsy. It was intellectual. Where can I go where people think reading is really cool?”
Loving the curiosity of Yalies, she marveled over her classmates’ ability to switch from philosophical discussion about the meaning of Hegel to debates about the economic crisis.
Meng chose to attend the elite boarding school Phillips Academy Andover for the same reason she came to Yale. “I wanted to be in an academic environment where everyone cared about what they were learning,” she said.
However, “caring” means much more than just emotion to Yalies like Meng. In debate, dance and Model U.N. at Andover, Meng said her relationship with extracurriculars “was defined by being good at them.” She internalized the Andover ethos: “You never did something casually. We were implicitly expected to be excellent at everything.”
Seeking to excel at one’s interests sounds self-centered, but it is arguably what a Yale education provides.
“Yes, my purpose here is very focused on myself. That is the purpose of education: learning for the sake of learning,” Meng said. Jason Altshuler ’23 wishes to learn and grow from his education. Peter Bowman-Davis ’25 plans to major in physics and philosophy to build the foundations for a lifetime of learning.
Excelling, growing, learning and building: these verbs imply a progressive development in what it means to live a better life. Altshuler says Yale offers “a buffet of personal experiences.” Each of us is free to choose which parts of life to enjoy. But if we are to truly learn and excel, Bowman-Davis says it must come from developing an intuitive mode about how to approach life. According to him, at a place like Yale we are expected to step back and think: “What is the significance of what I’m doing?”
Community and the Good Life
Learning to enjoy life is crucial to why Yalies come here, but Altshuler noted that “a lot of people come to college without a clear sense of why they’re here.” Perhaps that is the point.
“Music does not accomplish anything. It is just beautiful and expressive and meaningful,” Altshuler, a musician of many stripes, asserted. Akin to music, a liberal arts education lacks a clear, instrumental purpose. It does not teach skills directly applicable to many career paths. As a philosophy major, Altshuler probably knows this quite well.
Nonetheless, “everything shapes you,” he said. “Every semester, classes speak to each other.” Altshuler called this alchemy. The word is apt. Only the superstitious human psyche can seem to construct the meaning of life. A Yale education offers this opportunity, and we seek it unwittingly.
Of course, living and learning for their own sake do not occur in a solipsistic vacuum. They require a community. An offensive lineman on Yale’s football team, Bennie Anderson ’24 chose Yale not because it would necessarily land his dream of playing in the NFL, but because of “having the opportunity to interact with all the guys on the team.”
“We are all different. I like to read comic books, cook and listen to jazz. But we’re all brothers. I would do anything for any of the guys on the team. And they would do the same for me,” Anderson said. Seeking a community that supports each player’s full potential for the sake of the team resembles Meng’s desire to surround herself with people who care about what they are learning. Similarly, Altshuler loves singing lead vocals and playing bass in the background of his band because both mean “being part of a whole.” Tellingly, he said, “Playing with other people … just feels like life.”
Means to an End or to No End
No matter their passion, many flock to Yale for the learning community that makes accessing the good life possible. But such high-minded pursuits are truly a privilege. For many, perhaps even most Yalies, a Yale education represents something far more mundane, but fundamentally important: economic opportunity.
Yale attracts and inculcates professional ambition in many of its students. To them, Yale is a means to ascending into the elite or securing employment after graduation. A first-generation, low-income student from the United Kingdom, Joe Peck ’22 remembers sitting on the stairs as a child, wondering, “What if I’m not successful?”
For students like Zachary Zabib ’22, his ambitions for success and economic security mean recognizing the sacrifices his mother made to send him to a private Jewish day school and now Yale. Zach has majored in global affairs in part to learn from professors who have real world experience rather than political science professors who “write books for a living.” After Directed Studies, Zach deprioritized the intellectual part of Yale. “I didn’t come here to be the smartest person. I came here to have the tools for success,” he said.
The fact is pre-professionalism pervades Yale. “When I applied, I thought there was no pre-professionalism at Yale, that there was a distinct absence,” Meng said. “Since being here, there are significant pockets of Yale that do fixate on what job they are taking after college, but it is segmented out of the academic experience.”
To say her initial perception does not match the reality would be an understatement. Finance and consulting absorbed over 30 percent of the class of 2020 in their first year after graduation.
While the potential for professional success can relieve stress for the disempowered and less financially stable, the same opportunity of a Yale education can steer students away from finding purpose, generating an unhealthy status hierarchy in its place. Meng explained that people who are unsure of what they want to do choose professions that close the fewest doors, pay exorbitant salaries and confer institutional validation.
“The timeline distorts the way in which people understand opportunities available to them,” Meng continued. Coincidentally, the gilded doors of finance and consulting recruiting start to close as the leaves fall off the trees in New Haven.
According to Jeremy Haddock ’23, these times and socioeconomic pressures determine that many Yalies value what they should be instead of what they want to be. Haddock, who identifies as someone who finds purpose in the world of startups, said, “I know a lot of people don’t even really try to figure it out, which makes for a culture ever so slightly less innovative, creative, risk-taking, novel and growth-oriented.”
Alec Chai ’22 said this issue is particularly pronounced in the pre-med community.
“There are a lot of people who could find better fits in other things that they haven’t explored much because outside of medicine, jobs are much more confusing,” Chai, a reluctant pre-med himself, explained.
According to Chai, pre-med is “a linear progression to this prestigious job that is well-paying. An easy option to put yourself on. It’s also a very pure profession.” The path also provides certain success based on working hard, which Yalies have internalized to get here.
Chai sighed, “As a whole, [pre-med students] are overly concerned about their GPA’s. They miss a lot of the social life meeting interesting people from the school.” Chai went so far as to say without the community, Yale is not different from a state school for STEM students given the course content is the same.
Competition without purpose breeds an unhealthy and unproductive culture that assigns inferiority to certain groups and individuals. “I do feel like there is a lot of constant comparison towards other groups of people, whether it be athletes or humanities majors or STEM majors,” Chai said.
Juma Sei ’22 who runs track said, “The fact that I’m a black male athlete — people expect less of me.” This is in spite of the fact that during his official visit, Sei asked to see the African American Cultural Center before the running track. It mattered to Sei that Yale had a space where he could be “understood without qualification or expectation” because, after all, “Eli Yale never intended for me to come here.”
In a different vein, Anderson understands “everything I do here will be a reflection on the Yale football team.” Exhausted from practice, Anderson still feels the need to participate in his 8:00 PM history section in part to demonstrate that “there are no dumb jocks.” Outside of these group-based comparisons, status competition surely would seem to be the cause for at least some of the increasing anxiety and depression that students have seen in recent years.
Everyone for Themselves
Those who seem to be winning the status competition suffer, too. Peck believes that this competition produces an unethical sense of desert. He emphasized the advantages that students from privileged backgrounds have.
“There are so many people here who believe they don’t owe anyone anything,” Peck said. “Those people who come to earn money don’t have any purpose.”
Peck continued to say that students like these have a “moral hole.” They fill this void with a belief in their superior intelligence “like they have a natural gift from God,” forgetting the advantages they had all along the way.
After his gap year interning in a public defender’s office, Altshuler realized the privilege he has at Yale to focus on his higher-order betterment. On the one hand, this means not taking this education for granted and making the most of it. On the other hand, it means doing more than that.
“Because I have the privilege to be a little more picky and intentional with my work, I intend to find a job that aligns with public service and helping people,” Altshuler said.
But status competition has narrowed, if not eroded, the meaning of public service by repackaging it as influence. Elizabeth Hopkinson ’22, a former WKND editor for the News, said, “Yale can steer you away from public service. … There are really easy pathways that feel externally validating.”
Though denying competition as the cause, Jay Gitlin ’71, a professor of cultural and social history at Yale, finds that for today’s Yalies, public service “means being in a position to affect a lot of people.” In the policy world, this means living in a Washington, D.C. suburb among other policy wonks “removed from real people.” Lost is the sense of leadership and public service extolled by former Yale President Kingman Brewster whose speeches Gitlin fondly remembers.
Brewster spoke of Yale’s mission to produce leaders in the “Yale democracy.” Gitlin explained. “By democracy, he meant: it’s a scramble. Go out there and do your best. When he said be a leader, he wasn’t saying be a leader politically or be a leader in foreign policy. Be an architect! Draw cartoons! Be a musician. Be a lawyer. Do your best and be good at what you do. Applied to that was a sense of social responsibility. And that’s the message we all took from him.”
Status competition threatens the vitality of the Yale community that makes living and learning personally valuable and public service altruistic. Status competition is different from having a family and building a career, both of which contribute to a meaningful life. Status competition is devoid of purpose.
Fortunately, the lack of purpose does not have to do with Yalies themselves. “We are all here basically for the same reasons, but you are a little bit more surrounded by that competition bubble,” Gitlin said, comparing his class to today’s class. “We’re here to learn, have fun, and make friends.”
To correct the environmental pressures that breed status competition, Yale should focus on what it does best: facilitating self-sustaining communities. Zabib explains that because he internalized Tikkun Olam — repairing the world — growing up in his Jewish neighborhood in Queens, he said, “Everything I do is in some way service to people.”
Though Hopkinson doesn’t remember there being an explicitly religious element, she worked soup kitchens and delivered meals to the elderly with her Catholic church community growing up. However, she explained that generating such community support at a university “is really hard to do without a religious tradition.”
These religious bases for community and giving to others already have secular analogues at Yale. “Throughout all the athletics teams, if you have a culture of putting the team before yourself, that is so easy to translate over to your everyday life,” Anderson said. “ If you can be a really genuine person, it is a great reflection of me, but it’s more a reflection of my team, my family back home and my city.”
The key to protecting and revitalizing community life at Yale is enabling students to do the work. Bowman-Davis explained that through FroCo groups and FOOT, a wilderness program run by older students, Yale tries “to create a process for socialization when that process needs to happen naturally, and it’s just not happening.”
Rather than having shaped her in any meaningful way, Hopkinson finds that Yale has “nourished” her through giving her access to the things she needed. Yale is at its best when it allocates resources to the groups and leaders that foster community — not when it creates communities for Yalies and tries to shape them from above.
Administrative action is slow, but Yalies can defend the purpose of Yale today: to learn from and contribute to the life of the community. “The biggest part of Yale is getting to meet all these other people you can assume to be successful later, but are all very different, study different things, have different ways of thinking,” Chai said. “You just don’t get that from your classes.”