Sunday, September 13, 2015

So now you're at Yale: the provenance question

I suppose, it is a feature of age,
not merely to sympathise more than
is welcome, with the trials of the
present, but to perceive them, al-
most as a corollary of lengthy re-
flection, as potentially rather a
godsend to the young - who can be
counted on (much to the amusement
of the gods who envy them) to ex-
perience their challenges as com-
paratively self-defining. I offer
to admit, from one's own super-an-
uation, they simply are not. That
said, I never thought this at the

I associate the university, that
Yale is in my mind, with the life
and mind of a predecessor of ours,
Socrates. This is because my ex-
perience of Yale comes from the
dialogues of law students with an
indefatigably questioning inter-
locutor; and while I learned, e-
ven in college elsewhere, to val-
ue that intensity of interest in
the question put before my mind,
to engage, I appreciated there an
inherently infinite contestibil-
ity in such questions. It isn't
that a right answer cannot exist.
It's that the answer can't com-
pare with the vitality of the
question. It is on the basis of
this simple fact, that I condone
the education of lawyers at the
very most demanding institutions:
if one gets out of Yale without
humility, that principle suffers.
Hence, Clarence Thomas, and the

But I stray. At Yale these days,
there is a buzz to defrock an
undergraduate college of its
namesake, John C. Calhoun - the
noted South Carolinian theorist
of white supremacy, nullification
of national law, and awkward hair.
Students movingly remark upon the
ordeal of studying beneath commem-
orations of a racist alumnus. Who
would not?

The undergraduate motive of reform
is one we all exercised and never
forget; but it's no betrayal or re-
nunciation of that urgent feeling,
to say that it can hope for too
much, and in the wrong place. The
question is never, in an institu-
tion going on 300+ years, whose
university the place is (anyway).
The question is whether one is
capable of accepting responsibil-
ity, today, for the choice one has
made to engage in it - knowing, a
paradox lurks in some nomenclature.
Where on earth, may we demand an
apology from the past?

On the other hand, how best can we
remit the inference of insult or
worse, in the encumbrance of in-
heritances we'd never shape as they
are today?

Yale appears to be on the verge of
offering tentative answers to the
question, and one can't help but be
certain of the place's awareness,
that any answer must lack the per-
manence of the question. Hence, 
Yale. And may it never be easy.

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