Back to School, Part II

A few days ago, I wandered Old Campus, where a thousand freshmen were in the process of moving in. Together with the rest of the Yale Record, I passed several hundred copies of our “traditional Freshman Issue” into the hands and under the doors of the class of 2017.

(I feared their parents might open the magazine and faint from shock, but at Yale, you can get away with nearly anything if you call it “traditional”, from dirty jokes to the preferential admission of legacies.)

The joy in the air as we walked among the new students was one of the most intoxicating sensations I’ve ever felt, though I’m a teetotaler and don’t partake of marijuana, so my range of experience is limited.

It brought to mind the air around a rock concert. One thousand people, most of whom are about to have a supremely happy experience–but this experience will last four years, rather than four hours. The tension of that pent-up force is addictive. If I’m in New Haven after I graduate, I may stop by for future move-in days just to bask in it.

Tonight, having spoken separately with at least eight people I respect and admire over the past two days, I collapsed into our brand-new futon (courtesy of Rubber Match, the best store in this city). A smile hit my face and stuck.

I’m a junior now–an old man–but I’ve got two pent-up years left in me, and whenever I’m tired over the next nine months, whenever I have a problem set that won’t die or an article due yesterday, I will remember those pent-up years, and they will be my battery.

Like a nuclear reactor, the college years to come provide energy by slowly fissioning, until one is left standing in one’s cap and gown with nothing but one’s diploma and highly unstable waste material.┬áSome people feel sickened by this byproduct of bygone days, by the knowledge that their undergraduate years have passed and will not return. I fear that I, too, will suffer greatly for a little while come 2015.

But later, I will find an excuse to be on Old Campus again as the freshmen arrive, and I will plant the remnants of my gone-away years. Anything I can’t carry, in my suitcase or my mind–down, into the soil.

Much of what we do here is radioactive. Running clubs, organizing events, celebrating old traditions, imagining new ceremonies that will in time become tradition–all of it leaves behind a trace of who we were, for these four years, and echoes within the walls and courtyards in ways we never imagined.

But rather than decay, these remnants give life to Yale. This university is nothing but a collection of pretty buildings without the sum of the histories of its students, and the pent-up joy of its freshmen is made possible by what we’ve left for them to find.

Today, we’ve come back to school. Soon, we’ll leave forever, but who we were will remain etched in the halls and stones and fields.

It’s a new year. What are you going to carve?

Winter Break Books: Experiments in Ethics, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The book: Princeton professor Appiah mounts a defense of the titular “experiments”. Those who claim that other disciplines and ordinary people play no part in determining what is moral are wrong; simplistic moral theories are almost always wrong; we can improve our lives in an ethical way by working with what we know about ourselves as animals and as thinking beings. Appiah joins forces with a variety of cognitive scientists (for lack of a better term) to argue for altering the environments which inspire our moral instincts, rather than attempting to reverse those instincts we find unseemly.

The good: For a psychology nerd, this book is satisfying proof that social science has recognized utility even in the clouds of moral philosophy. Lots of great experiments and fun hypothetical situations, including a few tweaks to the Trolley Problem I hadn’t encountered before. Literary allusions throughout make for a more flavorful meal. The last chapter is a great summary of a lot of different big, important problems in modern ethical theory and provides a springboard for thoughtful scribbling (if you like to take notes with your books). The footnotes are the best part, in a good way; Experiments in Ethics could serve as the gateway to a philosophy major in all but name (and diploma).

The bad: The author was invited to deliver the Mary Flexner Lectures at Bryn Mawr. This book makes sense if you think of it as a collection of lectures, but reading rather than hearing it feels disjointed; Appiah leaps from point to point and rarely offers a definitive argument of his own (his work seems to have been done for him by Aristotle and a host of other long-dead luminaries). The book’s length, at barely 200 pages, prevents the author from entertaining many objections or backing up certain of his points, especially with regards to what stops a happy life from being “good”. A few of the interdisciplinary anecdotes seem to have been inserted mainly because Appiah loves them, rather than for their application to his arguments, which would have been less of a problem had the book been longer.

The verdict: Read it if you have some grounding in philosophy (an undergraduate or high-school introductory class would be fine) and don’t mind skipping ahead a page if Appiah starts to confuse you. Eventually, you’ll latch onto something interesting and memorable. Very much a book to take notes on.

The best things I learned: People tend to be nicer in quiet than in loud rooms. Lydia Davis writes killer short stories. Children and the Amish will accept that breaking certain rules (chewing gum, working on the Sabbath) is fine if an authority doesn’t regulate them, but insist that hitting would be wrong even if teachers/God permitted hitting. Philosophers tend to take sides on moral dilemmas in the same proportions as regular people, for basically the same reasons; in other words, our moral intuitions are very powerful, though they are not always right. Happy people are more likely than unhappy people to push a fat man off a footbridge if his body will stop a train from killing five hikers.


Note: Like many books of philosophy, Experiments in Ethics has a fine collection of Amazon reviews that delve deeper into the arguments than I can without boring some readers. I recommend checking them out if you are so inclined.