Learning From Yale

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The top administration at Yale University, in an email to students, has affirmed its support for Erika and Nicholas Christakis. So now’s as good a time as any for some housecleaning on the best emails from readers we have yet to post on Yale. (Earlier ones here.) This reader has a unique perspective:

I agreed with Conor Friedersdorf’s decision not to name the woman in the Yale video, partly because I could have done something ridiculous like that when I was in college myself, especially during my radical lesbian feminist stage. Thank goodness we didn’t have iPhones!

In my early twenties, I took a big step from a very radical left position to a more liberal position and haven’t moved significantly since. It’s unlikely that one incident will move me along the right-left axis long term, but it is frustrating to see so many groups run towards the margins of the spectrum. I’m racially mixed and adopted, and I dealt with that internally by telling myself that my race didn't really matter, “that the only race is the human race.” Within the past few months I found out that statement is a microaggression.

The New Republic, a magazine to which I subscribe, helpfully explained that people who hold that view are “social conservatives.” I’m a bisexual, tri-racial, intellectual, wine-swilling, monogamy despising, urban dwelling, female artist turned programmer and I’m what the newest left thinks is a “social conservative.” (I’d say “God help them,” but I forgot to add “atheist.”)

The following two readers are staunchly on the side of the student activists:

What struck me when I read the email from Erika Christakis was how very, very cold it was. She took an emotionally charged topic, intellectualized it, and effectively dismissed all the emotions and fear experienced by those who make Yale “diverse.” The young lady who cried out (to paraphrase) “this is supposed to be my home” was reacting to that coldness.  Where was the empathy?  Where was any molecule of human concern?

Second, anyone who knows anything about child development knows that students in their late teens are adults only in the legal sense. [CB note: The aforementioned young lady is a senior.] Christakis’s insistence on adult behavior (which was an impossible, pie-in-the-sky idealization of adult behavior in the first place) shows an incompetent grasp of human development—which is supposed to be her field of inquiry.

This reader thinks free speech has its limits:

Having grown up in South Africa, I know exactly where the Yale protestors are coming from. Ask yourself this question: if a group of students dressed up as Nazi concentration camp guards, would that be mere cultural insensitivity—or something deeper?

Free speech is one of the most important constitutional freedoms. The key test of any freedom is whether exercising that freedom harms any other freedom. Hate speech is generally accepted as one of the limits. [CB note: There is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, but there is for “fighting words” and “true threats.”] Dressing up in a way that is hurtful for others is certainly at least bordering on hate speech.

What defines hate speech is a moving target—a group that is vulnerable or who suffers discrimination is prone to hurt more than a group that is in a position of privilege or power. Nonetheless, treating hurtful speech as a normal mode of expression is not something that should be encouraged, even in circumstances where it may be tolerable within the definition of freedom of speech.

Yale as one of the world’s top educational institutions should be a centre for thoughtful discourse. Opening the lines of debate by a mealy-mouthed, vaguely-intentioned discouragement of openly racist displays is not a good start. Attacking that statement as too strong? How is that supposed to be thoughtful or civilised? There is nothing either thoughtful or civilised about racism.

It’s worth reading the whole email from Christakis to determine for yourself whether it was thoughtful or civilized. An email from a Yale grad (‘88):

I want to echo what other readers have written to you all thanking you for Notes—indeed, as someone commented recently, it fills a hole where The Dish used to be. As an alum of Yale University, I have been distressed at the news I have read and heard over the airwaves—mostly because of how absurd the controversy is, but also because of the gross misrepresentation of the contents of Prof. Erika Christakis’ letter by those supporting the student activists, and the complete ignorance of many of those activists about the university they attend.

Friedersdorf did a great job explaining how the letter Prof. Christakis wrote was quite respectful of the fact that students will have different views on what is offensive and what is not, and that students should engage those with whom they differ in discussion of their differences. What he wrote about the letter perfectly sums up my thoughts on it from my time at Yale: “When I was in college, a position of this sort taken by a faculty member would likely have been regarded as a show of respect for all students and their ability to think for themselves.”

As a side note, I found it odd that supposedly liberal students were harassing and berating Prof. Nicholas Christakis for the actions of his wife. I thought we were well past the days when husbands were supposed to account for what their wives did.

One of the latest issues to pop up in the discussion of what is transpiring at Yale, and by far the most infuriating, revolves around the term “Master.” I worked as a student aid in the office of the Master of my residential college, so I have good familiarity with the role of a Master at Yale (at least how that role was conceived 30 years ago, though I doubt it has changed). Certain activists claim that the word hearkens back to what is imagined as a slavery-sympathetic university, with the term “Master” representing a legacy of that slavery-loving past. The link, it is argued, is provided through the naming of one of Yale’s residential colleges after John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun College was founded in 1933, and at the time Calhoun, a graduate of Yale, was considered one of the nation’s greatest statesmen. I do not think the university sat back and said, “Gee, let’s pick someone who supported slavery as a name for our new college.” Yale, to its great credit, initiated a conversation in August of this year to discuss whether Calhoun College should remain named after such a vehement supporter of slavery and white rule—hardly the act of an administration that is insensitive to the perceptions and feelings of its non-white students. (I wonder, however, what liberals make of Calhoun’s opposition to the war with Mexico, as he was concerned not only with racial issues, but about abuse of executive power and feeding the public’s lust for empire.)

Brushing this tendentious argument aside, the term “Master” for the head of a residential college does not derive from or have any connection to plantation life (which would be very odd indeed, were it the case, as the residential colleges were founded in an exceedingly Yankee institution in 1933, a bit shy of seven decades after the end of the Civil War). As any semi-educated person should know, “Master” comes from the academic universe of the United Kingdom. (Here’s a simple Wikipedia article on the subject).

To object to the term “Master” because of supposed slave associations of that term is not only ahistorical, it is offensive to those who suffer real oppression and struggle daily with the legacy of racism in our nation.

Our Politics section has run two pieces on Calhoun. Lincoln Caplan drills down into the history of the college and concludes: “The Calhoun name is Yale’s Confederate flag. It’s time the flag came down.” R. Owen Williams, on the other hand, worries about the “danger of erasing Yale’s Confederate ties.” He comes up with a novel solution:

[R]ather than changing the name of Calhoun College, the university should acknowledge the good and bad of history, and amend the name to Bouchet Calhoun College. In 1876, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first African American to receive a doctorate in any subject from an American university, at Yale. Joining these two historical figures would stimulate a more honest and comprehensive discourse about American history.

Lastly, a reality check from a local:

I work about two blocks and a world away from the Yale Quad and the very spot where Ms. Luther shouted obscenities at the Christakis. The New Haven I see everyday is a human wasteland—of homeless, of obesity, of addictions, of crime, of unemployment, of welfare dependency, of school dropouts, and, most of all, of wasted potential. [CB note: Here’s a good article with data and maps: “Poor residents in greater Hartford and greater New Haven are just as likely to live in an extremely poor, predominantly minority neighborhood as those in greater Detroit or greater Philadelphia.”]

The irony of the situation is overwhelming. A very, very privileged few students screaming to be handled more carefully. To be allowed to live in safe spaces? How in the world have these students come to believe that they should not have to see a Halloween costume that might offend them? Or hear slights? Or make their own home? Or, for that matter, express their opinions without resorting to obscenities and tears?

The world outside Academia is a far tougher place than they are ready for. I think these students have been failed, but not in the way they imagine. They have been deprived of the real-world experiences that allow children to grow up, to leave childhood behind and assume the most basic of responsibilities—the loss of narcissism.

For the record, the Yale senior at the center of the controversy is very involved off campus:

Much of Luther’s information is lost, as she’s taken down her Twitter and Facebook profiles and her Instagram page is private. However, what remains shows that she’s a coordinator for Project Homeless Connect, which offers social and health care services to the homeless. According to her bio at The Globalist, she also works with the Yale Refugee Project. Her bio on PresentTense describes her as having a passion for social justice and helping others.