A veritable storm of high-profile cultural issues has swirled around university campuses for more than a year, and the ultra-prestigious Yale University remains a lightning rod that keeps drawing thunderbolts. Recently, administrators made a controversial decision to retain slavery-championing John C. Calhoun’s name on one of its residential colleges. The ensuing student outrage was predictable—it represents behavior that has come to characterize modern university life—as is that rage and indignation have buried the opportunity contained in this potentially instructive moment.
Yale students—and students at every university—should be practicing the art of effectively venting their frustrations. If they’re frustrated, that’s good. Frustration highlights an opportunity.
Circumstances like these are chances to civilly and rationally confront issues while elevating the capacity to articulate their moral intuitions, and there should be no better space for such a civil, rational discussion than at an Ivy League university like Yale. The case the students have made so far evidently has not been persuasive enough to effect their cause—so now they face an opportunity to improve their arguments, strengthen their case, and sharpen their presentation. This is the very definition of a real-world teaching moment for students, one taking place in the safe, receptive, microcosmic world of an elite Western university. That’s one lesson held here. If your cause seems just, and your case isn’t made, make it better, with better facts and more professionalism.
This opportunity carries other lessons as well. Students are reported as suspecting that big-money donors to the university, including one alumnus who allegedly donated $250 million, may have influenced the school’s decision. Well, future leaders of America and the world, c’est la vie. There are other influences than one’s feelings, one’s beliefs, one’s arguments, and one’s ideology in making important decisions in any society, and money is a very, very big one. The privileges of Yale aren’t free, and a quarter billion dollars says a lot. Maybe it isn’t good that large financial donations sometimes influence certain decisions, but, right or wrong, it’s part of the playing field that future leaders and professionals will have to navigate.
Another lesson is that you don’t always get what you want, even if you are right. This is life, and learning it—and how maintain your composure when dealing with it—is exactly the kind of real world lesson that future leaders coming to elite institutions should be enthusiastic, not frustrated or discouraged, to encounter. Opportunity often shows up in overalls, or in a neat business suit, as the case might be.
What should not happen at Yale is another of the same kind of demonstration that students have relied upon over the last year. Students must favor reasoned cases and orderly arguments via the kinds of channels that make democracies both functional and prosperous over mere (or screeching) protests and lists of demands. Democracies do not progress on demands, for these are the tools of tyrants, be they mobs or dictators. Students at Yale and students across the country right now have an opportunity to practice pursuing their social and political goals in terms of negotiable objectives instead of uncompromising ultimatums.
Should those who championed slavery in bygone eras retain their names on university buildings? Perhaps the answer isn’t as clear as either students or administrators seem to think, but what is clear is that robust debates are resoundingly deserved on all such controversies. It’s likewise apparent that this is an opportunity to grow up. It’s an opportunity to receive an education and engage the world, even from within an ivory tower. Yale students will be future leaders. They can turn the tide of the current campus mentality of using offense to make litanies of demands and grow into the kinds of real leaders that effective modern democracies need. But this is a choice they alone can make.