The viral news of this week — leaving aside the serious issues of war and peace in the Middle East, ongoing genocide in Africa, incursions into international waters by China, etc. — was the reaction of undergraduates at Yale College to two emails sent to them by various faculty and administrators. The first, send by a group concerned with Intercultural Affairs, reminded students to avoid racially and ethnically offensive Halloween costumes. The second, sent to students in one of the residential colleges by its Associate Master, criticized the first message and questioned whether it was appropriate for Yale to manage expression by its students or if it would be preferable for Yale students to monitor each other and — gasp! — have thoughtful, respectful conversations about their disagreements.
So far, just another tempest in an academic teapot. But when an advocacy group called FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) got hold of the story, and its president recorded and aired a video showing a confrontation between some students and the Master of Silliman College (who is married to the Associate Master), the story went viral. Lines were drawn in the sand and loud voices at both extremes of the political spectrum have been raised. Score one for FIRE! Free publicity!
Here is my take on it, in part. One, all of these Yalies took the lure and made themselves clickbait for pundits, who love nothing more than a nice, containable tempest in a teacup that doesn’t require them to do actual reporting from places like war zones but allows them to pontificate based on nothing more than their own opinions. Two, can we take a step back here and acknowledge that one of the problems driving this is the continuing migration of Halloween from a harmless kids’ holiday with mostly homemade costumes to an adult-focused excuse for partying, boozing and costumes that offend on many levels? Just sayin’ — have you seen some of the “sexy” costumes being promoted for sale? When I was growing up, you could take a sheet, cut holes in it and go trick-or-treating as a “ghost.” And you stopped trick-or-treating once you entered high school. BECAUSE HALLOWEEN WAS FOR CHILDREN AND GROWNUPS WERE SUPPOSED TO STAY HOME AND HAND OUT CANDY. But that doesn’t generate any profit for bars or beer-makers, and where’s the fun in that? And how boring — much less fun than a frat party where the “bros” can loudly proclaim what kind of women they want to include. While we’re on the subject of hate, how about the misogyny displayed?
Three, the most personally disturbing part of the whole episode for me is the meltdown, on video, of a young woman who has been given the gigantic privilege of admission to Yale and access to all of its educational opportunities. Don’t mischaracterize what I’m saying. Yale and its like have a huge public responsibility to make those opportunities available to the most gifted among us, which in my mind means opening them up to a diverse student body that reflects the diversity in our world. But those students, who were admitted over thousands of other qualified applicants, also have a responsibility: to test, push and challenge themselves to learn as much as possible, grow as human beings and expand their own intellectual and personal horizons. Shouting expletives at a professor who disagrees with you and shrieking at him to “be quiet” is not how to do that. Publicly shaming the first black dean of Yale College is not how to do that.
Here comes the middle-aged part. No undergraduate, however brilliant or right, should get to behave this way in public toward any faculty member or administrator at any college, with impunity. I doubt this young woman is more than 21 years old. I have no idea if she is brilliant — her vocabulary suggests otherwise — but regardless: who does she think she is? If I were her parent, I would be mortified. I would wonder why I was working and sacrificing to pay tuition so she could indulge in this kind of outburst. I would want to know what more worthwhile activities were sacrificed to the time she spent working herself into this kind of temper tantrum and showing the world how immature and rude she is. I would worry that no one in their right mind will ever want to employ her or admit her to a graduate program. And who does this young woman think will now feel motivated to work to make things better for students like her? Probably not one of the middle-aged people on whom she just publicly vented her bile. These students are turning viciously on the people who actually care what they think and are willing to engage with them. Keep it up, kids — those potential allies will disengage. They have tenure, and you will graduate. They can outwait you, if you make it so hard and unpleasant to help you.
And here’s an idea. Yale, how about you all GROW UP? Put away the Halloween costumes, stop sending provocative emails, learn some manners, hit the library and the books, volunteer for some actual public service that requires some discomfort and real time commitment on your part, and do something to justify the massive expense of your college education and research agendas, which are being supported by parents, Yale’s endowment and three centuries of alumni, and subsidized by the public in the form of tax exemptions. Show the rest of the world that you deserve all this and are willing to earn the rewards of this privilege you have been given, to inhabit that gold-plated ivory tower. All of you.
Photo: Yale Daily News.