Describe your high school experience. If you are like many Yalies, you attempted involvement in a record-breaking number of activities, securing leadership positions in at least three. Returning to your home just in time for dinner, your evenings were marked by frantic studying for the exam that, if you failed, would destroy your hopes for the future. Looking back on your high school experience, you are almost amazed that you survived the four years. Yet, somehow you did survive, and your efforts were rewarded with a single sheet of paper, the expectation of which had left you in agony for months – a single sheet of paper that became proof of your acceptance to Yale University.
What happens now? Is anything different? You have been accepted to college, so it is time to focus on acceptance to graduate school or on getting a job. To do this, you need an impressive résumé, which requires lots of activities and astonishingly good grades. You need to specialize. You need to develop marketable skills, at least enough to fill up a list that you will bring with you to your first job interview.
But Yale College refuses to provide a home for those obsessed with these goals. The mission of Yale is an anti-vocational mission. There are no classes in textile marketing; there is no program for accounting. The mission of Yale College is not to give its students a set of specific and perfected marketable skills. It is not to develop its students into hotel managers and accountants, although many Yale graduates go on to such careers. Rather, the mission of Yale College is found in the creation of leaders, and this mission requires that Yale develop the entire self of each student that enters its gates.
While other students study textile marketing, Yale students study Dostoevsky, Aristotle, and Kierkegaard. Through such studies, they grow to better understand themselves and their place in the world. Yale offers students four years to fulfill the adolescent dream of “finding themselves.” And these four years are crucial to students who will spend every other minute of the rest of their lives striving for perfection. Yale does not seek to put students on the fast track to becoming Wall Street tycoons. Rather, if they let it, Yale slows these students down. It forces them to study things they never considered studying with its distributional requirements. It designs programs of study that teach students about humanity and society rather than about dollars and cents. For those who learn to appreciate what Yale has to offer, getting an education from Yale is the equivalent of spending four years on the best intellectual playground in the world.
It is incorrect, however, to speak of these four years in isolation from the rest of a Yalie’s life — Yale graduates continue to use the knowledge they acquired at Yale for years after graduation. Granted, most Yale graduates are unbothered by questions about the nature of Being or the root of governmental authority. However, the fact that they were once forced to ask these questions is more important than whether or not they ever found an answer. By growing in their understanding of selfhood, of humanness, of society, and of government, Yalies shape their intuitions about how to respond to the world around them. The study of everything from natural science to political science allows Yale to develop an impressive maturity in its students that comes from a deep, yet somewhat intuitive, understanding of one’s self and one’s environment.
This development is the true value of a Yale education. Vocational skills are easy to learn. Leadership ability derived from self-discovery can only be acquired at a school such as Yale. This does not mean that Yale always succeeds in its mission. Yale is constantly plagued by both students and administrators who forget about its project. Furthermore, while the Yale curriculum does attempt to develop its students by virtue of a liberal education, it is painfully uncertain as to what the end result of this development ought to look like. Because of this lack of clarity, Yalies must exercise tremendous self-discipline in order to ensure that the diversity inherent in a Yale education contributes to the development of worldliness and maturity. Frequently, the diversity of study that is encouraged by both the Yale distributional requirements and the exceptional list of course offerings can result in loss of direction and purposefulness in students. Fortunately, while these difficulties provide endless fodder for student editorials and complaints, they do not succeed in wholly undermining Yale’s attractiveness as a place where the project of selfdiscovery can be fully pursued.
It takes effort on the part of Yale students to adjust to this understanding of what a college education means. Upon returning home from their first year at Yale, students can often be frustrated by the differences between Yale and other colleges. The very question, “What are you going to major in,” can often prove difficult to Yalies. To parents and friends at different colleges, a major in political science or history is going to seem like a waste of time when compared to a major in communications or advertising. Students who are accustomed to being the obvious picks for “most likely to succeed” must reconcile themselves to jokes about professional studentship and academic isolationism.
Yet, it is precisely this antivocationalism that makes Yale a great academic institution. Students and professors at Yale refuse to look at education merely as a chance to develop job skills. For Yalies, education is essential to both developing the self and to maturing in the way that one interacts with the world around him.
So, what does this mean for freshmen? It means that the only way to take full advantage of a Yale education is to abandon all preoccupations with résumés and with marketable skills and to focus, rather, on self-discovery. In other words, have fun. Take advantage of the amazing course selection offered, of the enthusiasm of the professors, of the intelligence and excitement of fellow students. To help you with this project, in this issue of the Yale Free Press, we have provided you a course critique stocked with recommendations, compliments of people who have taken the classes that you are now choosing amongst. We hope that this proves helpful to you as you try to narrow down the thousands of possibilities that now confront you. Good luck during your first semester at Yale.
Nikki McArthur is Editor-in-Chief.