Home/Alan Jacobs/Safe Homes and Public Individuality at Yale

Safe Homes and Public Individuality at Yale

Silliman College at Yale University Sage Ross/Flickr

Richard Rodriguez, in his great memoir Hunger of Memory, movingly recounts the day when a nun, one of his teachers at his parochial school in Sacramento, asks his Mexican parents to speak English at home in order to encourage Richard to improve his English, to be more confident speaking it in school. He was in first grade.

Not a request that would be made today, I suspect. His parents agreed, of course—a nun had asked them! And while young Richard missed very much the sounds of Spanish at home, his English did get better. He became more comfortable at school; indeed, eventually his public identity came to be closely associated with his academic success. And he became strangely grateful for that nun’s request. It set him on the road to manhood: “I became a man by becoming a public man.”

This experience (and others like it) led eventually to Rodriguez, as a graduate student, becoming notorious for his opposition to bilingual education programs. He may or may not have been right in that opposition—there should be, and there is, serious debate about when young people need to make that essential transition from the private comforts of home to the sometimes challenging but also rewarding demands of public life—but no one has ever articulated more precisely the essential principle at stake here:

While one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality.

I think Rodriguez’s point is essential for understanding the current kerfuffle at Yale University, where students and alumni are—track with me here—demanding the resignation of of the master of a college and the assistant master because the master is refusing to apologize for not having exercised dictatorial authority over other students’ Halloween costumes. To most outside observers this will seem pretty silly. But let’s ask where the kind of reaction the students and alumni are having comes from.

The key may be found in this op-ed in the Yale Herald, significantly titled “Hurt at Home.” Jencey Paz writes,

As a Silimander, I feel that my home is being threatened. Last week, Erika Christakis, the associate master of Silliman College, sent an email to the Silliman community that called an earlier entreaty for Yalies to be more sensitive about culturally appropriating Halloween costumes a threat to free speech. In the aftermath of the email, I saw my community divide. She did not just start a political discourse as she intended. She marginalized many students of color in what is supposed to be their home.

But Silliman College is not “supposed to be their home.” It is a residential college in a university, a place where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together temporarily, for about 30 weeks a year, before moving on to their careers. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship.

It is possible, of course, that Yale sells their residential college system to students as a kind of “home”; I don’t know. The official description seems to me to strike an appropriate note without over-promising: “The residential colleges allow students to experience the cohesiveness and intimacy of a small school while still enjoying the cultural and scholarly resources of a large university; the residential colleges do much to foster spirit, allegiance, and a sense of community at Yale.”

Now, to be sure, this “cohesiveness and intimacy” can for some students be very powerful—their college can even be a better and healthier environment for them than their actual home. The great theater critic Kenneth Tynan loved Magdalen College, Oxford (where C.S. Lewis was his tutor) so much that he wanted his ashes to be interred there. But it was not his home, and could not have been, because there were other people there who didn’t even know him, or who knew him but didn’t like him, or whose preferences were radically different than his, and who had no long-term bond with him to force them to come to some mutually agreeable terms beyond basic tolerance for three years or so.

Residential colleges have long been defended as transitional spaces between the world of home and a fully independent adult life, and it would be a great mistake to think of them as merely continuing the ethos of home. That would leave young people totally unprepared for that “adult life,” which I think we might, for the purposes of this discussion, define as that period of one’s existence during which there is no one to run to to demand control over other people’s Halloween costumes. When one only has, to return to Rodriguez’s terms, “private individuality,” it is quite natural, if not altogether admirable, to seek out an authority figure when someone’s holiday costume offends you. But by the time one gets to college one’s “public individuality” should be sufficiently developed that the wearing of costumes should be seen as an essentially trivial matter that students can deal with among themselves. If they can’t, then the university needs to acknowledge that they’re dealing with some serious cases of arrested development.

Let me wrap this up by simply repeating a passage from a post I wrote some months ago: In a fascinating article called “The Japanese Preschool’s Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,” Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin describe a twofold strategy commonly deployed in Japan to deal with preschoolers’ conflicts: machi no hoiku and mimamoru. The former means “caring by waiting”; the second means “standing guard.” When children come into conflict, the teacher makes sure the students know that she is present, that she is watching—she may even add, kamisama datte miterun, daiyo (the gods too are watching)—but she does not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Even if the children start to fight she may not intervene; that will depend on whether a child is genuinely attempting to hurt another or the two are halfheartedly “play-fighting.”

The idea is to give children every possible opportunity to resolve their own conflicts—even past the point at which it might, to an American observer, seem that a conflict is irresolvable. This requires patient waiting; and of course one can wait too long—just as one can intervene too quickly. The mimamoru strategy is meant to reassure children that their authorities will not allow anything really bad to happen to them, though perhaps some unpleasant moments may arise. But those unpleasant moments must be tolerated, else how will the children learn to respond constructively and effectively to conflict—conflict which is, after all, inevitable in any social environment? And if children don’t begin to learn such responses in preschool when will they learn it?

Imagine if at university they had developed no such abilities and were constantly dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction. What a mess that would be.

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.