Almost four years ago, I sat in Woolsey Hall sweating from the August heat as Peter Salovey and Marvin Chun welcomed to Yale the Class of 2022. I remember their words on responsibility, light and truth. I sat there, surrounded by all the people that I had yet to meet, as Salovey described our class as the next generation of leaders, pioneers and builders. When he described how Yale would help us become those things through all its resources, connections, and teaching, I was all in. I was ready to be transformed by Yale’s “light” and guided by its “truth.”
Over the course of my time here I’ve both witnessed and benefitted from the “greatness” that Yale confers upon its students. From the interactions with world-class professors to the pedigree that a Yale diploma provides—Yalies are steeped in a long tradition of excellence and expectation. As a graduating senior I will again listen to Peter Salovey and Marvin Chun extol the virtues of a Yale education. I will hear how the world needs our leadership and our greatness. But unlike that kid four years ago, I won’t buy it.
The problem with Yale is that it assumes that its students will be future leaders but never asks if we deserve to be. As a Global Affairs major, I’ve often encountered how Yale’s rhetoric for greatness intersects with its stated mission to create the next generation of leaders. Salovey notes the importance of Yale’s mission as he describes global affairs, “Yale will continue to fulfill its responsibility to teach students to become leaders… Leaders who will write international law, direct global corporations, shape economic and climate policies, lead militaries and much more.” This assumption, that Yalies are destined for future greatness and positions of power, not only contributes to our myopic view of ourselves in the world, but is dangerous.
Within global affairs, most of my teachers are practitioners, not academics. However, the problem with the practitioner model is that it instructs you what to do when you have power rather than telling you to be skeptical of it. Instead of teaching you to be critical of institutions, it supposes that you will be working within them. The belief that “I can change this place from the inside” is sown and grown by our time here. But instead of telling students what to do when they obtain power, Yale should be teaching students how to affect change when they are outside of power.
When we fail to be critical of the type of power and privilege that Yale bestows upon us throughout our time here, we are likely to become the cogs and the conformers of long-standing and intractable institutions. Yet the problem with criticizing Yale is that we are largely a reflection of this institution. After all, it chose us to be here. If Yale is not radical enough, neither are we. If you don’t think Yale does enough in this world, what are your thoughts of your classmates?
This weekend, as we are reminded of our and Yale’s “greatness” during speeches, ceremonies, and congratulations we must too be reminded of its antidote. The antidote to greatness is the swirling combination of our skepticism, criticism, and hesitation for the very type of privileges and power we glean from this place. For example, how can we learn to be simultaneously respectful and proud of our ambition once we leave here? Or how could we embrace the strength of a Yale education while also recognizing its pitfalls?
Welcome the dissonance of questions like these. Learning to appreciate the contradictory nature of our “greatness” allows us to be aware of the perils of our power. Without instilling the values of cautiousness and thoughtfulness into its students, Yale’s stated mission to create the next generation of world leaders will fail to deliver the type of leadership capable of delivering the necessary change to address the challenges we face today.
The irony here is that Yale as an institution will never lead its students to question its mission or premise. If Yalies do find the “light” and “truth” which leads them to be critical of the promise of greatness, oftentimes it will not be because of Yale, but in spite of it.
A professor recently told me that “the world does not need your greatness, it only needs your decency.” As we leave this place and enter into the next chapter of our lives let us measure our success not by the greatness of our achievements but our decency as we do it.
JACKSON DUPONT is a graduating senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com