Yale News

I had the pleasure at Monday’s opening assembly to welcome the members of Class of 2026. It was my first official act as the new dean of Yale College, and I was so grateful for the opportunity, and the honor, to mark the official start of the academic year, which has been made possible by hundreds of staff and faculty members. I am humbled and inspired by their efforts to open our classrooms, residential colleges, cultural centers, athletic facilities, and performance venues, and I am eager to build on their work in the semesters and years ahead.

In my Monday remarks, I said that the opening assembly is one of my favorite formal events of the academic year because it is a time of formal introductions, of beginnings. But these opening days are also a beginning, less formally, of a conversation among peers and instructors that will go on for many years to come. It is a conversation that brings the great pleasures of fellowship and of learning. And it is the conversation of a scholarly community that defines the pursuit of knowledge in a great university.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius open his Analects, with words that are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago: “Is it not a pleasure to learn and—when it is timely—to practice what you have learned? Is it not a joy to have friends coming from afar?” For Confucius, the purpose of learning consists in the opportunity to develop our moral and aesthetic sensibilities, to fulfill our humanity, and to do so with humility. We know most of what Confucius taught through the accounts of his disciples, who always represent the great philosopher, like Socrates a century later, in conversation. In fact, the meaning of the Chinese title of the Analects, “Lunyu,” is “conversations” or “dialogues.” Like these ancient thinkers, this community learns through dialogue, through thoughtful conversation, which enables all of us to develop our own sensibilities and fulfill our humanity.

Generations of students have come here to pursue those goals through Yale’s broad, liberal education. That education takes place in formal settings like classrooms and discussion sections; libraries, galleries, and laboratories; even the desks or carrels for solitary study. But it also takes place in less formal ones, in the conversations in student groups, with instructors during office hours, or with strangers and new friends in residential college dining halls. This is a campus designed, often intentionally but sometimes by happy accident, for conversation. Together, the books and classrooms, and the more informal lessons you learn from each other — all of these form part of a single, broader conversation.

You have all come here knowing the state of public dialogue in our polarized society. You know already how at times it simply reaffirms our existing beliefs and at other times devolves into partisanship or even violence. Universities are not immune to dogma, but they do aspire to a higher type of conversation. As you join or start your own conversations in the semesters ahead, think about how they can expand your horizons. One of the distinctive things about human experience is that we are born in particular bodies, at particular times and places. We see the world from a given perspective. But we also have the chance to expand our worldview as we grow and learn and travel. The poet Tennyson has a beautiful image of this kind of learning in his poem “Ulysses.” He writes: “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.” There is always something to learn just over the horizon, what the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer describes as “the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.” For Gadamer, understanding involves fusing those horizons with those of others by becoming more thoughtful about how our own assumptions relate to someone else’s vantage point, and by opening ourselves to reassessing our own assumptions. The work of understanding, and even just the work of living in this world, is a constant mental journey through time and space that develops our views and changes our horizons—a journey like the one Ulysses made, what the Greeks called an odyssey. It involves an ongoing metaphorical conversation where we question our own assumptions and prejudices through our encounters with other people. Ideally, if we are open to growing, we can talk to people whose standpoints differ from ours, and we can learn from these conversations. A crucial, even defining prerequisite of learning is the willingness to open ourselves to views and ideas — and even ways of life — that challenge our assumptions, either so we can learn to understand and defend those assumptions, or in some cases to change or reassess them. 

This does not mean that you need to accept every idea that your professors or fellow students propose to you. But as Yale students, your job is to consider the new ideas you encounter with an open mind, weigh new perspectives and arguments, and arrive at your own views about matters of great importance for yourselves and for your futures—matters such as the nature of justice, the understanding of the natural world, the meaning of art, the purposes of life. You will explore these questions not only in your classes but also over meals in your dining halls, on the athletic fields, in your campus jobs, in your student organizations, as volunteers serving the community, or in any of the many pursuits open to you as a student.

One of the greatest opportunities to learn at Yale comes from the “peer effect,” the chance to interact with other talented people your own age. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, when speaking about her opening days of college, talks about stereotypical assumptions she encountered. As a constructive response, she emphasizes the importance of listening to the variety of stories people tell about themselves. “The single story,” she says, “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” She concludes that “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.” 

As you settle into your residential colleges and begin your classes, I invite you to participate in a dialogue. Like Confucius, enjoy the pleasure of learning. Like Ulysses, seek out new worlds. Like Gadamer, strive to expand your horizon of expectations. Like Adichie, explore the complexity of other people’s stories, share your own, and create new stories together. You may find the most interesting conversations in seminars or lab meetings, or you may find them in your extracurricular activities, or late at night in the college buttery. 

In the conversations ahead, I ask you to open yourselves to learning from each other. Enter into conversation in a spirit of generosity. Assume good intentions. And value complexity and nuance over self-assurance and stereotype. These conversations are an integral part of your Yale education. The lessons they teach you will show you how to develop as human beings. And they will show you how to shape the conversations that shape our society.

Pericles Lewis is the Dean of Yale College. He is the Douglas Tracy Smith Professor of Comparative Literature and a professor of English, and formerly served as vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives. Contact him at pericles.lewis@yale.edu.