“Let Harvard have its academics; Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life.”
Noted Yale alumnus and plutocrat C. Montgomery Burns once uttered these words of wisdom, and that greedy old man was on to something. Academics do not an education make. Quietly sitting in lectures for four years does not qualify one for anything save perhaps a job as a regular lecture attendee or note-taker. Though one of the major selling points of a good university is its success in the classroom, a great university needs to be built upon what happens outside of the classroom. Yale has, unfortunately, forgotten that.
For some reason, people are fond of labeling Yalies as “political.” However, most undergraduates here seem to fall into one of two camps, neither of which qualifies them as being at all political in a substantive sense of the word. The first group is the “get up and go camp.” These people are very fond of attending the many guest lectures that take place on campus. They scour bulletin boards looking for advertisements of some interesting and famous figure who will be giving some interesting-sounding talk. Members of this camp attend many such lectures, but they rarely stay till the end. Rather, once the guest is done with his prepared speech, they promptly get up and go home. After all, they have absorbed their RDA of knowledge and see no need to stay and ask a question. Some do bother to ask the guest to clarify this or that part of his speech, but they are not the majority.
The habits of the second group are much more disturbing, as it is these people who by and large carry the “political” banner that Yalies have attempted to bear for three centuries. This group is the “Billionaires for Bush” camp. A few months ago, when students from various Connecticut colleges and universities gathered on campus to voice their support for President Bush., a group of counter-demonstrators, calling themselves Billionaires for Bush, attended the rally. Rather than gather as a block and make their stand against the Bush supporters, they infiltrated the rally and held up their own inflammatory signs while pretending to be Bush supporters and part of the larger rally. They refused to give their names or to engage in any sort of argument. Neither of these groups can legitimately be labeled political. The first group desires only to listen and not to speak. They do not seek debate. They do not seek to come to a better understanding of themselves and their beliefs on the issues of the day, the ideas that define their world. They only want information, dispensed by this or that expert. The second group also does not seek debate. Rather than speak and argue with those who disagree with them, they shut their ears and shout as loudly as they can. They also refuse to take responsibility for the opinions they broadcast . Instead, they hide behind a group façade, finding safety in numbers instead of mustering the courage to argue as individuals.
The Billionaires for Bush protest is representative of the tactics that most “political” leftists use on campus. Whether they are protesting the war in Iraq or Yale’s relationship with its unions, the tone of their rallies is one of hostility and intolerance. Oftentimes, as I can personally bear witness, students with dissenting views will attempt simply to talk with the participants of a typical leftist protest. Said dissenter is quickly identified as being one with the enemy and is promptly drowned out by a chorus of repetitive chants. If this student continues to push for a conversation, he will often hear, bluntly and unequivocally, that he should leave. His evil, conservative viewpoints are not welcome among this self-righteous group.
Essentially, politics on campus have become one-dimensional, and this phenomenon is very problematic. Protests and rallies can and should be a valuable part of political expression. However, when that is the only way that people channel their opinions, the current state of affairs on campus becomes inevitable. The group with the greatest numbers and loudest voices invariably wins because it drowns out, rather than defeats through intellectual argument, its adversaries. Dissenting voices are marginalized; the university’s commitment to true freedom of speech becomes nothing but a slogan which is neither appreciated nor defended by the campus at large. Sure, most students will assert that they are supporters of freedom of speech, but that is rarely the case in the middle of a heated and ugly protest. Those who would defy the liberal orthodoxy when it comes to issues such as unions and gay marriage, for instance, are gleefully drowned out and ignored to save the effort of listening and responding to their opinions. But despite this seeming break in communication, the campus does have a place for ideological opponents to gather for true debate, a place founded on the tradition of heated, personal, and persistent debate. These are the debates of the Yale Political Union which, for seventy years, has been the place where the Left and Right can honestly debate one other. Rather than be opposed to activism, the YPU should be a complement to protests and rallies.
Unfortunately, YPU membership has declined significantly in recent years. It is no accident that this trend correlates with wider trends on campus. If students are not committed to intellectually honest debate, the protest culture can very easily (as it has in the past several years) degenerate into adolescent shouting matches. Quite frankly, politically interested students on campus are not getting as much out of their Yale careers as they otherwise might. They have inherited a damaged campus culture and few do anything to improve it. Far too many people prefer anonymity and invective to accountability and dialectic, and Yale’s students have been the victims of this degeneration.
Despite the gloomy status of today’s YPU, there is nothing inherent to the left that makes it allergic to debate. As late as 1995, the YPU could fill each and every seat in the Law School Auditorium for its weekly debates. Though many attendees left soon after the keynote address was through, many others also stayed for the student debate. These members of the Left and Right realized that instead of shouting and insulting each other all the time, they could make something valuable happen when they met to debate. Liberals who stayed for these debates realized that conservatives are not all straw-men. They are not all greedy, evil, corporate-minded Nazis. Likewise, conservatives realized that not all liberals are muddle-headed, socialist/communist, utopian buffoons. Believe it or not, ideological adversaries can occasionally realize that the other side makes a bit of sense every now and again. But no protest junkie has ever learned this lesson. If one is too busy chanting slogans, one will have a hard time actually listening to the other side. The Yale Political Union, as the campus’ home for non-partisan debate, is essential if Yalies are ever to escape the banality that has overtaken so many of their political opinions and attempt to look at life through the eyes of those with whom they so viscerally disagree.
At the heart of a truly liberal education lies the need to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. A diploma from Yale counts for nothing if one has spent one’s undergraduate career with his eyes shut and his fingers in his ears. Take a look around, talk to some people. Who knows? You might learn something. Maybe you’ll even get inspired enough to take up that hot-headed conservative on the YPU floor at the next meeting.
Steven Christoforou is graduating from Calhoun College and former Senior Editor of the Yale Free Press.