Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 13, 2002|Volume 31, Number 2














Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead addresses the Class of 2006.

Freshman Address: Learning by Choice and by Chance

The following is the text of the talk by Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead at the Freshman Assembly on Aug. 31.

Shortly after I began thinking about this occasion, the New York Times carried a story about the spacecrafts Voyager 1 and 2. Launched more than 20 years ago, these crafts have taught us most of what we know of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune and, having passed far beyond Pluto, they are poised to make the first human register of the heliopause, the outer edge of the solar system. This story put me in mind of those rocket launches that once made great theater with their rhythm of countdown, liftoff, then that curious moment when the booster rocket broke off as the spacecraft continued to ascend. And that made me think of you.

Parents and families, this is a day of pride, happiness, and grief. We greet you but we also say farewell to you, since when this ceremony is over it's time for you to go. Why? In the logic of my metaphor, it's time to uncouple and drop away because you have done your work. The energies of your love and care helped put this precious payload in orbit. Your success is proved by the fact that it will now carry on on its own.

And Yale's new arrivals, our 302nd class, what does my bizarrely protracted metaphor say for you? As of this moment, you are flying free; from here forward, your business is just to soar. Up to this point a great deal of your education has been introductory or foundational, and hemmed in with restriction. Now you reach the good part, when you can do the interesting things you spent all those years preparing for. To your families I say hail and farewell but to you I say hail and hooray. Men and women of the Class of 2006, welcome to Yale, and to a great phase of your life.

Now a few words about what's up ahead.

What do we know about you? We know for sure that you were good at getting into college. At your young age, you have mastered some very advanced skills, like the art of presenting yourselves with appealing modesty while making sure that we learn of every one of your killer accomplishments. What do we hope of you? In choosing you from thousands of others, our bet was that you will be men and women who will contribute in special measure to the good of your times. Your early accomplishments were important to us less in themselves than as signs of the intelligence, energy, creativity, and concern for others you might someday put at the service of your world, in any of the thousand forms in which such powers are needed.

Now how are you going to get from the promise you have already shown to its fulfillment in later life? Your college years could help make this difference. Let's ask exactly how.

While reflecting on this question, I happened on a magazine piece on the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. (You must be thinking that my intellectual life is almost wholly at the mercy of the contents of my mailbox.) The Vietnam Memorial is one of the most powerful works of civic commemoration to have been created in modern times, and it is all the more remarkable because it was produced under a double difficulty. Since it was designed to be built near other famous monuments like the Lincoln Memorial, one challenge was how to interpolate a new, contemporary structure into this tradition-heavy space without creating a jarring dissonance or an empty repetition of classical cliches. The harder challenge was how to commemorate something that was the object of such intense, unresolved ambivalence: how to build a monument that would speak to those who had believed in the war and those who had thought it a huge, violent mistake, those who had risked their lives in the nation's service only to find themselves reviled for their sacrifice and those who had risked exile or criminal conviction for their opposition to this cause.

The problem was solved by a design whose aesthetic presence carries the viewer far beyond the partisan register: a work of grave visual austerity that registers the name of each American who died in the war on a low black granite wall, refusing any statement but the one everyone could assent to: that, right or wrong, the war had exacted a steep human cost; and that each individual death was a proper object for grief, memory, and respect.

The design for the Vietnam Memorial was selected through an open competition, and as you may know but the judges certainly did not, the submitter of the winning proposal was a Yale student, an undergraduate who created her design in a seminar and made an early model out of mashed potatoes in a Yale dining hall. This was Maya Lin, Yale College class of 1981, whose work you may also know from the Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama or the Women's Table one block from here.

Let's use Maya Lin as an example of someone who sat in this room as an arriving freshman and later used her gifts to meet an important social need. What road led from here to there?

It's natural to assume that this person always knew that she was on her way to becoming the famous architect Maya Lin and knew just the path that would lead to this inevitable success. But if you read the profile in the July 8 New Yorker, you will learn something quite different. We learn that she came to Yale with the thought of becoming (are you ready?) a field zoologist. She backed away when she learned that dissection would be involved, and -- now I quote -- "She didn't know, at first, what to do instead; but she loved art and she loved math -- so, she explained, architecture seemed perfect."1 This new revelation must not have come to her too promptly, however, since we also learn that she took no architecture courses until her third year at Yale -- suggesting considerable groping before she found the light.

I find this a brilliant if extreme example of an important truth. When this school is used right, students don't just fill in a schedule with more or less interchangeable courses. They bring their interests to bear on their courses, and they use their classes to bring their interests to a higher development. But this process does not always lead to the expected result. Lin found her eventual course by plotting an initial course but then engaging in self-revising, open-ended exploration. Through her pursuit of known interests she found her way to new interests, and with them new knowledge of what she could do and be.

Even then, Lin's relevant education did not proceed from one decision or source. The profile highlights many aspects of her college experience that seem to feed directly into her later accomplishments but that could have formed part of no plan when they occurred. It would not be easy to have guessed that this child of Chinese refugees would have taken a junior term abroad in Denmark. While there, Lin studied in the section of Copenhagen that contains the large cemetery where notables like Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen are buried, which Danes use as a public park. Taking in this fact gave further definition to Lin's emerging focus -- it sharpened her interest in memorial spaces and their role into everyday life -- but Lin did not go to Denmark to make this discovery. On her way to one goal, she took in something peripheral, which she wove together with other perceptions in an amassing harmony of recognitions. The very space you walked through to get to this assembly figured in her retrospectively purposeful, initially fortuitous education. The Woolsey Hall rotunda, Yale's great pedestrian shortcut, is another place of daily use carved with names of those dead in wars. Thousands pass through this space unseeingly every day. But Lin saw it, projected her interests onto it, and carried it up into her active understanding, where, joined with other deposits in wholly unforeseen ways, it would one day help her envision a monument of her own.

As you've surely guessed, this talk is not about Maya ,Lin at all. It's about education, where it comes from and how it happens; and though I use her education as my example, it's yours that I have in mind. Your education will share none of the specific content of Lin's but it could share its form. As you come to full maturity, this place gives you the chance to forge a richer sense of the world and a deeper grasp of the powers you could bring to bear. How will this happen to the fullest extent? Lin's case suggests three replies. You'll get the good of this place to the extent that you engage it actively and intentionally; to the extent that you explore the field of possibilities flexibly and broadly; and to the extent that you open yourself to new experience in the widest possible array.

To be a little more particular, you could succeed in getting very little from this place if you approach it with passivity, an eagerness to follow the many, or the willingness just to do what we ask. Maya Lin met all of Yale's formal requirements but meeting those requirements never made anyone a Maya Lin. She realized the possibilities of this place by bringing an active, distinctive curiosity to bear on them, and she sought out opportunities that were not lying in plain sight. It was Lin and her classmates, not the instructor, who initiated the seminar in which she first designed the memorial.

Docility and inertia aren't common Yale diseases, so I don't much worry about you on that score. But I am more concerned by another threat, the danger of an understandable timidity. If you're like every other group of freshmen who ever came here, behind the mask of your fabulous self-possession there are likely to be deep reserves of anxiety, and these may drive you toward the typical recourse of the vulnerable and exposed: the urge to construct a tight, safe, controllable version of Yale to ward off the terrors of your new home. I have heard of students who, from the whole ludicrous cornucopia of our academic offerings, have sought to take those courses most like ones they have taken before, to fend off the terrors of the new. I've known students who, from the whole company of gifted humanity we've assembled around you, have tried to restrict their social exposure to the very types they already know -- people from their same country, same kind of school, same religion, same cultural background, same team sport, and on and on.

If you feel such temptations, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, Yale is a benign environment, very friendly, very supportive. Though some things will seem strange at first, it's safe to come out: no one is waiting to pounce on your real or imagined deficiencies. The bad news is, in this new home, hiding out in supposedly safe places is impoverishing in the extreme. Besides the tedium of all that familiarity, every new experience you shut yourself off from -- every intellectual challenge you succeed in not facing, every unfamiliar social type you succeed in not knowing -- is a chance for discovery you have succeeded in shutting down. Some set of these experiences could be your version of Maya Lin's junior year in Denmark or walk through Woolsey Hall: the thing that fatefully enlarged you and gave you more fully to yourself. But that's not going to happen unless you open yourself to new things and the lessons they could teach.

Finally, if you want a real education, you can't be excessively concerned to chart it all in advance. It is an illusion that successful people move toward their goals along straight lines. As the Maya Lin case shows, the process through which people realize their promise is fed from a hundred sources foreseen and unforeseen, working together in unguessable ways, toward ends that are partly planned, partly surprising. You have been very successful at a young age and much of your success has probably clustered around some statement about who you are: I'm a great (fill in the blank) cellist; high jumper; filmmaker; teacher of underprivileged children; I'm going to be a great (fill in the blank) biomedical researcher; environmental lawyer; poet; software entrepreneur. These are excellent ambitions and you should not hasten to give them up. But the use of this place is to build a broader knowledge and enable a more knowing choice, even if you choose the same goal you already have in mind; so while I would not have you give in to whims, you need to be willing to wander outside your appointed line -- even if it leads away from the paths of your confident success. If Maya Lin had hewed to the line she traced in advance, she would not have found the passion we think of as her identity and might now be the manager of a petting zoo. If she had let external measures dictate what she was good at, she might have been misled another way: amazingly, the design that won the national competition received only a B+ when she submitted it in her course. (You will be pleased to learn that her instructor also entered the competition, but he did not win.) She found her thing by trying many things and by having the courage of her curiosity -- and so, I trust, will you.

Women and men of the Yale College Class of 2006, you worked hard to get into a great college. And you succeeded! And this day you get your reward. But though your work to date will serve you well, the reward is not the chance to repeat your success on identical terms. It is the chance to reopen your mind, to renegotiate your interests, to win a deeper purchase on yourself and your world-and to make this happen, you need to embrace both the disciplines and the freedoms of this place. Seek out all the opportunities of your new home and you won't be the same person when you leave. You'll be you all right, but you enriched and developed: you further realized through the process of education. As of this moment this place is yours. Let the learning begin!

1. Louis Menand, "The Reluctant Memorialist," The New Yorker, July 8, 2002, pp. 55-65. The quote is from page 58.

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