To freshmen: Keeping inconsistency in your pockets

 

 

Tamar Gendler, the Vincent J. Scully Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy, urged the new freshmen to embrace contradiction in her Keynote Address to the Class of 2017, presented on Aug. 27 in Woolsey Hall. The text of her speech follows.

Thank you so much, Dean Gentry and Dean Miller.

And welcome, welcome, members of the Yale College Class of 2017! As a proud member of the Yale College Class of 1987, I welcome you the best reunion cohort ever — the 2s and the 7s — we’re thrilled to have you join us!

Can you believe you’re here? I mean it — really — look around you! You’re sitting in Woolsey Hall, on the campus of Yale University, surrounded by 1359 of the most amazing and engaging and exciting young people on the planet. You hail from all 50 US states and from 49 different countries: you are from Argentina and Bulgaria and China (though there’s no one from Denmark or Djibouti!) you’re from Ethiopia and France and Ghana — and Hong Kong and India and Japan and (don’t worry, I won’t do the full alphabet) … and Senegal and Trinidad and the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam (though there’s also no one from Yemen or Zimbabwe.) You play the violin and the marimba and the gamelan and the electric guitar. You’ve won math competitions and poetry prizes; you’ve built award-winning haunted houses and toured with teams of professional clowns; you’ve tended gardens and worked on oil rigs; you’ve organized peace protests and served in the Navy. You, class of 2017, are an extraordinary and diverse group.

Look around the room again — this is a room full of people who will become your classmates for the next four years and your friends for the next forty; this is a place where your predecessors have sat and your successors will sit; and this is a space — like so many other spaces on this magnificent, sometimes overwhelming and sometimes intimidating, but often magical campus — that is yours to explore, yours to learn from, yours to transform, yours to make your own.

So to set you on the path of making this space your own, let me start by telling you a little bit about the building where you are sitting.

Woolsey Hall — that’s the place where you are right now — is one of a trio of buildings known as the “Bicentennial Buildings.” These buildings were built, as the name suggests, to commemorate Yale’s bicentennial in 1901. They were the first buildings on campus that belonged to Yale as a University — rather than to one of Yale’s constituent schools (things like the Sheffield Scientific School, or Yale College) — and they provided the campus’ first large-scale secular gathering spaces: a place where the entire community could assemble on common, neutral ground.

Woolsey Hall — this grand, soaring space of coming together — was named in honor or Theodore Dwight Woolsey, who was president of Yale from 1846 to 1871, and who had died in 1899, two years before the building’s dedication. Woolsey had been a transformative figure in Yale’s history: a scholar of Greek, he was known to his colleagues as a “man of original and creative scholarly powers.” He had spent time as a visitor at the leading German universities of his era, and when he returned to America from his time abroad, he was committed to bringing the rigors of classical education to the young men of New Haven.

The members of the class of 1902 who sat in this room when it was new — contemporaries of your great-great-great grandparents — would have recognized the images of the nine muses of Greek mythology who adorn the ceiling: [west side of ceiling — south to north] Melpomene the muse of tragedy; Calliope the muse of epic poetry; Polyhymnia the muse of the sacred; Euterpe who inspires music; Erato who inspires the lyrics of love, [east side of ceiling — north to south] Thalia the muse of comedy; Urania the muse of astronomy; Clio who inspires history; Terpsichore the muse of dance — and in the center, Athena, goddess of wisdom.

The goal of the architects who designed this room — the same team who designed the New York Public Library a decade later — was to create a space where past and present come together, where the universality of human experience is evoked through the majesty of music and the grandeur of the heavens.

The other two buildings in the trio of Bicentennial structures also places of coming together. The Yale Commons Dining Hall — with its Hogwarts beams and its long communal tables — is designed as a place of gathering, a place where prior affiliations fall away.

And the Memorial Rotunda, the grand, circular fulcrum that connects Commons to Woolsey Hall — that hinge that connects Science Hill to the downtown campus — is even more powerfully a place where present and past are joined. Engraved upon its walls are the names of the Yale students and alumni who died as soldiers in the each of America’s wars from the Revolutionary War in the 1770s through the Vietnam War two centuries later.  Maya Lin, Yale Class of 1981 and architect of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., writes of the power of passing through this hall. She says: “I have never been able to resist touching the names cut into these marble walls and no matter how busy or crowded the place is, a sense of quiet, a reverence, always surrounds those names.”

Some of you may feel these spaces in that way I’ve been describing them: you may feel comfortable, even uplifted by the grand, towering, symbol-laden formality of these rooms and halls. Others of you may find it overwhelming, even intimidating: You may feel the exclusionary weight of Yale’s massive wooden doors and its heavy iron gates; you may feel discomfort navigating an unfamiliar place imbued with the markers of traditional privilege. You may be profoundly aware that many of us in this room — including all three of us on this stage — would not have been admitted to Yale in its early years. Yale is indeed a work in progress, and there is much progress still to be made.

Both of these ways of responding to this campus are legitimate. Both are important. And the capacity for both is within you all.

There’s an ancient Jewish teaching that says that every human being should carry in their pockets two pieces of paper: on one of them you should write the words “For my sake was the world created” On the other you should write: “I am but dust and ashes.”

The teaching continues telling you to reach for each these papers at the moment that you are feeling the opposite. So when you are feeling lowly or depressed, discouraged or overwhelmed, you should pull from your pocket the paper that says “the world was created for my sake.” And when you are feeling high and mighty, superior and arrogant, you should pull from your pocket the paper that says “dust and ashes are all that I am.”

You will find — all of you — that you will need both of these papers during your time here at Yale.

There will be moments where you will be convinced that you do not belong here, that you are a hopeless fraud, that the admissions office made a terrible mistake in not eliminating your application in the very first round. And for moments like that one, you need to create for yourself something that does what the first piece of paper says — that is — something that reminds you that you do indeed belong here — that Yale was created for your sake — and that if you are feeling overwhelmed, or out of place, or lonely, or isolated, that this entire community — this room full of your amazing classmates, the upperclass students that you will meet in your colleges and classrooms and in your singing groups and on your teams, the campus staff that files and cleans and cooks and guards, the graduate students and faculty who will join you in your classrooms and laboratories and field sites and studios, the librarians and the coaches and the counselors and the doctors and the deans and the masters -- we are here for you! For your sake was this campus created.

But, of course, though this campus and this community were created for you, it was not created for you alone. It was created for you [point] and you [point] and also for you and you and you and you. It was created for you as a plural — vosotros in Spanish, vous in French, sizi in Turkish, y’all in Alabama — as a plural. For you and me and him and her and them and us — for all of us. And that’s where the second piece of paper comes in.

The second piece of paper reminds you that you are but “dust and ashes.” That is: that you are composed of the same matter as your fellow creatures, that you — like them — are a transient inhabitant of this planet, made of the same material — dust and ashes, protons and electrons, hydrogen and helium, cells and more cells. So when, at the moment where the lift of the first piece of paper raises you so far above those around you that you begin to lose your sense of commonality with them, your sense of connectedness to them, your sense of responsibility for them, it’s time for the second piece of paper: “dust and ashes are all that we are.”

So that’s one pair of inconsistencies that you can keep in your pockets, to guide you in your time at Yale. But there’s another pair — hinted at by the pair that I’ve already mentioned — that I’d also advise you to have on hand.

So here’s another version of the parable. Every human being should carry in their pockets two pieces of paper: on one of them you should write the words “All others experience the world as I do.” On the other you should write: “My perspective is mine alone.”

There are moments that you will need to pull each of these from your pockets: there are times when you will assume too much commonality with those around you, and times when you will assume too little.

The assumption that everyone’s experience is the same as my own is the classic mistake of infancy. A baby who has covered her eyes so that she can’t see you thinks that you can’t see her either. It’s a major developmental milestone — typically reached around the age of 4 — to recognize that someone else’s beliefs about the world may differ from your own. Indeed, the task remains a difficult one even for adults.

A standard task in psychology studies involves seating two people on opposite sides of a table — [gesture] so I’m on this side, and you’re on that side — and placing between us an object that looks like a vertical three-dimensional tic-tac-toe board. So imagine a grid made of shelves right here on the podium in front of me — with you seeing it from that direction, and me seeing it from this one. And imagine that it’s divided up like a tic-tac-toe board so that each of us sees nine little boxes — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 — three rows of three, shaped like a grid.

In each of the boxes of the grid, the experimenters have placed a toy object. So, for example, there might be a small rubber duck in one cell, a larger rubber duck in a second cell, and a small stuffed rabbit in a third. Each of us sees the cells from our own side: so what’s top left for me is top right for you, and vice versa.

If you’re having trouble visualizing the scenario, in some sense I’ve already made my point. When you have a picture in your head, a perspective on the world that you’re trying to share with someone else, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out just what you have to tell them to bring them to understand the image you are trying to convey. And this case is no exception.

But I’m hoping that at least a few of you have some sort of picture in your mind of this set-up, since I want to describe the rest of the experiment. I promise it has something to do with the story of the two pieces of paper — and that even if you aren’t following the details, the main point will still come through.

So the psychology task continues with one of the subjects giving the other a prescribed instruction: For example, you might be asked to say to me: “Take the large rubber duck out if its cell and put it on the table.” And my job is to do what you’ve asked me to do. It sounds pretty easy.

But there’s something else about the set-up that I didn’t tell you yet, which is that some of the cells are covered on one of their sides by opaque pieces of cardboard that obscure the opening from one of the sides. So, for example, the center cell may be visible to me, but obscured for you, so that I can see what is in it, but you cannot.

Here's what important for the larger moral. When the cell is obscured in this way, I can see that: I can tell that there is a piece of cardboard preventing you from seeing the large rubber duck in the center. So I realize that although from my perspective there are three rubber ducks — a small, a medium, and a large — from your perspective there are only two, since the large one is blocked from your view.

Now, what this means is that I should realize that when you say “take the large rubber duck out of its cell and put it on the table,” you mean that I should take what I think of as the medium rubber duck, and put it on the table. If I’m understanding your words in the way that you are using them, I should move the duck that I think is the medium one, not the duck that I think is the large one.

It turns out that even this simple task is awfully hard to do. Children are terrible at it, and even adults — who do manage to reach for the medium duck rather than the large duck most of the time — take out the correct duck only after looking first, and often reaching towards, the incorrect one. And if you have them do the task while they are concentrating on something else, they are practically as bad as children.

This story has a number of morals. The first, and simplest, is that rubber ducks come in many different sizes. The second, which I already mentioned, is that it’s often difficult to describe an image or experience to someone else so that they understand it, even when the image is vividly clear in your mind. But the third — and most important — moral is that we have a natural tendency, in many circumstances, to assume that others share our perspective on the world, that they are just like us, that we don't need to correct for what is idiosyncratic about our experiences — even when this assumption is false.

Of course, we’re consciously aware of all sorts of differences among us. Consciously, I may realize that you watch MSNBC while I prefer Fox; that you think Edward Snowden is a hero while I think he is a criminal; that you are obsessed with opera while I am obsessed with BASE jumping; that you love to dance kathakali while I prefer to twerk. But when we’re engaged in moment-to-moment interactions, I may lose track of the ways that I am assuming commonality where there may be difference.

I may assume, tacitly, that because my gender identity matches the biological sex that I was assigned at birth, that yours does too. You may assume, tacitly, that because your life takes its meaning and structure from a religious tradition, that mine does too. You may assume, tacitly, that because you think our interaction is fully consensual, that I do too. And I may assume, tacitly, that because I intend this address to be inclusive and hospitable, that you are experiencing it as such.

In fact, even though I was writing a freshman address about the risk of unintended exclusion, here’s a mistake I almost made. In a gesture that I was thinking of as warm and welcoming, I wanted to encourage my fellow Piersonites to cheer [come on, Pierson!] But, of course, in so doing I was leaving out 11/12ths of my audience. [Sorry Berkeley and Branford and Calhoun and Davenport and Stiles and JE and Morse and Saybrook and Silliman and TD and Trumbull!]

So that's why you need that little piece of paper in your pocket — the one that says, “Assume that my perspective is mine alone.” Sometimes using “we” is a way of being inclusive: “we’re all in this together.” But sometimes it's a way of tacitly excluding: “we thing thus-and-such” or “we feel such-and-so.” That “we” — like this room — may have different meanings for different people.

So take that piece of paper from your pocket when you are trying to genuinely listen and genuinely speak. Realize that you may be assuming commonality when there is actually diversity, that you may be assuming consensus when there is actually dissent. Open yourself to the possibility that there are novel perspectives to be gained — from your classmates, from the historical works you read, from the multiple disciplines that provide you with differing approaches to questions that matter. If your perspective is yours alone, there is much to be learned from the perspectives of others.

At the same time, this assumption of difference may go too far. Yale is filled — as I mentioned earlier — with teams of people who are here for you: professors and masters and deans, librarians and coaches and counselors, secretaries and janitors and dining hall staff. We are here for you. But we are here for you as fellow human beings — as a team of individuals engaged, alongside you, in a joint enterprise of tending and building and sustaining this incredible campus and the community that it supports.

And we — like you — are dust and ashes, protons and electrons, cells and more cells. If it's a snowy winter morning, and you pass a member of the grounds crew who is shoveling the walk, if you are cold, she is probably cold too. Look her in the eye, and thank her. If you appreciate acknowledgement, the same is likely true of those around you: greet the dining hall workers who cook your meals, learn the names of the janitors who clean your hallways, thank the secretaries who file your forms.

That is what the second piece of paper is for: to prevent you from losing track of the humanity of those whose work supports you when you soar.

So keep those contradictions in your pockets:

“For my sake was the world created”
“I am but dust and ashes”

“My perspective is mine alone”
“All others experience the world as I do”

And when circumstances require, pull them from your pockets and read them aloud to yourself. Yale is yours — all of yours — to explore, yours to learn from, yours to transform, yours to make your own. And we are indeed here for you — for all of you.

Welcome to Yale!