The Importance of Being Important

Sweat dominates the olfactory landscape, as a sea of young women and men crowd in front of ornamented organs and delicate decorations. Dressed in their Oxfords, these students have gathered to hear the president and the deans, the peak of Mount Academia, share and speak their thoughts to the new entering class. Naturally, pomp and tradition dominates the experience as the heavenly choir and majestic organ float through the wind. Commencement is here for the Yale Class of 2019.

Through President Salovey, Dean Halloway, Dean Muller and Master Near’s several articulate speeches, the vision of Yale’s future slowly solidifies. Their speeches touch on topics as soaring as the songs in the procession: issues of national and global importance, pleas of intellectual discussion and mindfulness, and a dedication towards leadership and service. With the particular focus around the naming of Calhoun College and the national discussion of race, there is no shortage of empathetic and logical calls to action. We have been selected to guide this country towards a better future, a better tomorrow.

Still, something bothers me. It was covered in Professor Gage’s address in the Freshman Commencement – the paradoxes of Yale. As she mentioned, there are three overt messages we often hear:

  1. You did not get in by mistake. You are special and unique and important.
  2. Noone else got in by mistake. Everyone around you is special and unique and important, and you need to work hard if you expect anything good.
  3. You are privileged. You are good. You are important.

Obviously, these first two messages can often cause confusion and unease within students. How are we able to study in a joyous setting when everyone is special? Would our delicate minds be able to handle not being the best, or would we immediately have nervous breakdowns? Of course, the solution to this is an appeal to our love for learning. Coming to Yale represents that we students are no longer bound to the rat race of education, such as is found in high school. Everyone can be a happy learner, absorbing the pinnacle of human knowledge in this exclusive, safe club.

However, it seems to me that it immediately implies several topics – that 1) people who are not fortunate enough to get into a top school are unable to appreciate the happiness of learning, 2) that people who were not able to enter college at all are thereby unable to prosper from the love of learning, and 3) that high school is not ultimately beneficial in any way towards the journey of learning, but is instead only a stepping stone for the next step.

I have a problem with those three corollaries, which I believe stems from one root cause: importance. We, as students, have arrived within the iron gates and Gothic halls, designed to provide grandeur and mysticism to the college we live in. Every branded item, from the small stickers to the lanyards to the large banners and posters, reminds us that you are here, that you made it. No matter what you do, it’ll be fine. As a senior CS student told me, it’s okay if you don’t do well in the academics, extracurriculars, or social life of the campus. You are already in. You already have the name. It’ll be fine.

But will it really?

I want to be happy in college, and for me, that means applying all of me to the brilliant classes and even more to the enormously kind friends I hope to make. I have no doubt that the majority of Yale feels the same way, that there is something more than a number or a diploma that makes up a human. We receive the education here and use it to improve the world.

A large portion of this stems from two sources – one, an excellent Yale Daily News article by Victoria Hall-Palerm on Importance in Yale, and another essay in Harper Magazine by William Deresiwicz on college and the market. Both have colored, or at the least, tinted, my perception of these welcome ceremonies. Like Deresiwicz, I’m jarred by the lack of “education” as one of the college’s foci, but perhaps that is so simple that the leadership need not to mention it? Or perhaps this is just further nervousness of how classes will look like, and how I will perhaps find my own bliss here.

The first day of classes have treated me well. Each seminar and discussion brought in new insights, just as I had always hoped. Perhaps prejudging the college on nothing but the merits of the opening processions is too empty. All I know is that I will be trying my hardest and doing my best.

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