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Yesterday, as you unpacked your belongings, met your roommates and freshman counselors, and moved from one activity to the next, you probably had little opportunity to pause and reflect on what lies before you. That’s the purpose of this afternoon’s convocation. In this grand hall, built at the turn of the last century to commemorate Yale’s two hundredth birthday, you participate in an ancient and solemn ceremony of welcome. You heard the power and glory of one of the world’s great organs; as the procession began, you felt its bass notes rumble beneath your feet. You saw the University’s officers, masters, and deans march to the platform where they now sit arrayed before you, their gowns and hoods symbolizing decades of study and scholarship.
All this announces to you: You have come to a serious place. This is a place where ideas are taken seriously; where study is taken seriously; where athletics, extracurricular activities, and community service are taken seriously; where involvement and moral responsibility are taken seriously. We welcome you to a tradition that has for nearly three hundred years celebrated learning, cherished excellence, and encouraged commitment. This ceremony is for you—the most accomplished, most engaged, and most promising of your generation. We have boundless hope for you, and confidence that you will make the most of this serious place. It will shape your lives, and you in turn will help to shape its future.
No doubt you are wondering: what does this serious place have in store for us? I thought it might be interesting to answer this question by reflecting on the words of some of those who have gone before you. Such words may be found in the personal essays published on the occasion of a class’s 25th reunion. I chose for today’s text the 25th reunion book of the Class of 1955, but it could easily have been another.
The Class of 1955—though its members might object to this characterization—was a class like any other. Of course, like the 253 graduating cohorts that preceded it, there were no women in the class. In fact, the first 25th reunion of a coeducational Yale College class will occur this coming spring, in June 1996, a quarter-century after the graduation of the pioneering women who entered Yale as juniors in the fall of 1969. In any event, the Class of '55 includes hundreds who have made an impact on their local communities, churches, civic organizations, places of work, and professions. Some have made a notable impact on the wider world—the governor of our largest state, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, and several other distinguished scholars, one of whom is sitting behind me—the beloved Master T., the Master of Timothy Dwight College.
What did these graduates, reflecting on their own experience, point to as the essential features of a Yale education? First, they learned to take ideas seriously. Consider this comment by a civil engineer who later became a lawyer:
Yale introduced me to the intellectual world, and to the people who inhabit that world. It also gave me exposure to the really able people of that world. The questionsraised in my mind while I was there have stimulated a lifelong search for answers, and in so doing have vastly enriched my life.
You will encounter ideas here. Many will excite your curiosity and open you to entirely new areas of knowledge and new perspectives. You will also learn that there are people for whom the life of the mind is the essence of life. Most of you, like our first witness from the Class of '55, won’t choose that course for yourselves, but you will come to appreciate how such people—scholars and scientists, your professors among them—enrich the lives of others.
Many members of the Class of '55 comment how their exposure to new ideas at Yale gave them a lifelong appreciation of literature, philosophy, and the arts. For example, a clergyman commented:
I am increasingly grateful for the quality of my Yale education. Yale taught me how to think and how to analyze, and it led me to appreciate the arts.
Or this from a neurosurgeon:
I enjoy classical concerts [and] traveling to art museums … My Yale education has given me intellectual channels to pursue outside my profession.
Or, as a distinguished literary critic, who has spent his life teaching in one of the world’s great universities, told his classmates:
I remain constantly grateful for my four rewarding—indeed liberating—years in New Haven. I have never encountered an undergraduate education that could match Yale’s.
Of course, it is not mere exposure to ideas that Yale will provide for you. As our clergyman testified, you will also learn to think and to analyze. Indeed, sharpening the faculties that will permit you to think critically and independently is just about the greatest gift that Yale can give you. Our teachers will not teach you what to think, but how to think. This feature of a liberal education was much appreciated by the Class of 1955. As a stockbroker observed:
I will always be grateful to Yale for giving me the confidence (and sometimes the ability) to question anyone on anything that doesn’t make sense to me. I am rarely intimidated and am getting less surprised at how many times the experts and conventional wisdom are wrong.
There is, to be sure, more to Yale College than the development of one’s critical and intellectual capacities. Over these four years each of you will develop your character as well as your mind. For more than a century, Yale has been noted for its “second curriculum,” the enormous number and variety of activities in which its students engage. Indeed, as a well known journalist from the Class of '55, recalled:
I’m probably one of the few people who chose Yale over Harvard just because I thought the Yale Daily News was a better paper!
You will find here an extraordinary array of activities, and you will find yourselves, like generations of Yalies before you, drawn almost irresistibly to an intense and passionate commitment to one or more of them—to athletics, music, drama, a publication, a political organization, or voluntary service in the New Haven community. In such activities you will learn the value of commitment, the virtues of engagement, and you will develop the capacity to work with others, to lead, to make a difference. Listen to these voices. First, a physician:
The principal thing Yale gave me had nothing to do with concrete intellectual or cultural knowledge. It had to do with values, with an ethic, a way of being, a habit of mind. I am a “doer”—I can’t sit back—and while some of that was in me from the beginning, I think it was nurtured by Yale. My belief that you are on the earth to make a difference, that fighting for right is better than accepting wrong, and that intellectual and cultural pursuits enrich life: No one exactly told us these things, but they were in the air, and I became the person I am partly because of them.
And this from a lawyer and active civic leader:
a Yale graduate should either believe or pretend to believe (1) that each individual has an obligation to give more to his or her community that he or she takes, (2) that the lot of people everywhere can be improved, and (3) that one person can make a difference.
An introduction to new ideas, a sharpening of the intellect, a love of engagement, and an obligation to make a difference—this is not all that your Yale education will provide. It will also provide an opportunity to live among extraordinary people, to learn from one another and to learn about yourselves. A banker from the Class of 1955 put it this way:
If the “friendships formed at Yale” are themselves an important part of your education, so too is the development of capacity for self-understanding. As one scientist told his classmates:
So we may recapitulate: At Yale you will learn to take ideas seriously, to appreciate the life of the mind, to think critically and independently, to engage actively in something you are passionate about, to contribute to the betterment of a community, to enjoy the virtues of those around you, and to understand yourself. These are the lessons we learn from the Class of 1955: To think, to understand, and to enjoy—to think (for oneself), to understand (ideas, oneself, and others), and to enjoy (each other’s company, the active pursuit of a passion, the engagement with a purpose larger than oneself). But lest you should imagine that my selection of these themes is the product of my own idiosyncratic reading of the “texts” provided by graduates of bygone days, let me provide one further piece of evidence, testimony about what was told to the Class of '55 upon their matriculation into Yale College, testimony that bespeaks a reassuring continuity of the values that are most central to this place, testimony that links the speaker, his classmates, and you to one ancient and living community. One final reunion reflection from the Class of '55:
As each year passes, my appreciation of Yale and its value increases. We were taught “to think, to understand, and to enjoy.” Those were the words, as best as I can remember, from one of our first convocations held in Woolsey Hall in September of 1951. I have recalled those words many times.
Welcome to this serious place. May you thrive here, and may this place enrich the rest of your lives.
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