We have, I hope, arrived at Yale because we are interested in learning things. In our quest for knowledge, we have left home, family, and friends. Leaving home gives us a chance to free ourselves from the provincialisms of our upbringings, a chance to embrace the foreign and unfamiliar. The university exists to foster an environment where orthodoxies meet challenges, where we accept no higher authority than the integrity of our own minds.
All of this should sound exhilarating; it should make your pulse beat in anticipation. Don't get too excited. Many of you will spend four years at Yale without changing your minds about any substantial issue. The institution that should foster intellectual challenges has become little more than an intellectual safety net. Instead of leading us in the journey toward the foreign and unfamiliar, the university encourages a retreat into ourselves.
Racial and ethnic minorities are herded into Cultural Connections to bask in their "otherness" and divide into segregated communities of people like themselves. Departments and programs such as African-American Studies; Ethnicity, Race and Migration; and Latin American Studies offer classes filled with African-American, Asian, and Hispanic students who come to the table to talk and think about their own experiences to the exclusion of learning something new.
Criticizing such academic endeavors, however, has somehow become equivalent to criticizing the specific ethnic and racial identities of the students and scholars. A very recent example is the conflict between Harvard University professor and renowned African-American scholar Cornell West and Harvard's President Larry Summers. When Summers questioned the quality of West's contribution to the academic life of the university after West spent much of his time there producing a third-rate rap CD and advising Bill Bradley's and Al Sharpton's campaigns, Jesse Jackson and other black leaders threatened a boycott of Harvard and demanded a conference on racial sensitivity to be held on campus. Apparently, criticizing Cornell West's professional behavior was equivalent to attacking the black identity. If Larry Summers criticized a white professor for such behavior, however, no one would have accused him of attacking that professor's whiteness.
Many students spend four years in college but learn only to construct an epistemological bubble around themselves. If a man casts doubt on a woman's claim of oppression or a white person casts doubt on similar claims by an African-American, the response is often, "You don't know what it's like to be a woman," or "You don't know what it's like to be young and black in America." These responses limit discourse to such an extent that we cannot make any claims about things we have not experienced. And since two people never share the same exact experience, sharing knowledgeor having a common epistemologybecomes difficult if not impossible. It is as if two friends had an argument about whether soccer or basketball was better and none of them could make any claims because they did not share the same experience of playing these sports.
History, philosophy, and even the social sciences, have also degenerated into small impenetrable camps. Marxists, feminists, and Freudians all propose non-falsifiable theories to advance their pet ideaand their careers. No observation could disprove their theories. How do you prove to a feminist that a skyscraper isn't built as a phallic symbol? You can offer arguments about the cost of real estate and advances in building technology, but since it is impossible to get complete knowledge of the architect's subconscious motivations, there is no way to prove that the building wasn't built as a phallic symbol. If a Marxist begins with the principle that the rich don't reveal their true motivations, but are instead always merely advancing the interest of the bourgeoisie, no amount of evidence can disprove this claim since it is physically impossible for me to know the capitalist's true motivations. Ideas such as Marxism and radical feminism cannot be scrutinized and must be accepted as true. How convenient.
A Yale education, once intended to make its graduates more cosmopolitan, has become a mere instrument for self-confirmation.
Yale touts the diversity of its student body in shiny brochures. But the word diversity has now come to mean only that we spend our time in the study of ourselves and hide in our own bubbles. We forget that the capitalist, the working person, the housewife, the black, the Italian, and the Jew all share in a common humanity. We might profitably spend less time exploring what it means to be female, black, or poor, and more time exploring what it means to be human.
Yevgeny Vilensky, Editor-in-Chief