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Local Opinion The Sophist

Response to Professor David Gelernter


Welcome to Yale. Please don’t disregard anything you’ve been told so far. Think profoundly and open-mindedly why people have to say what they say, regardless of whether you eventually agree or not. However, be careful: listening to people around you does not mean blindly following their instructions. It is always important to analyze what they say, both sympathetically and critically.

In early September, David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale, published  advice for new students in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Ten Things They Didn’t Tell You at Freshman Orientation.” Although the list is full of anti-intellectual remarks, many of the readers may feel that it is extremely hard to refute his points since what he says sounds natural and realistic in that it to some degree symbolizes the mindset that our social and educational environment leads us to have. My first impression was that many Yale students, including myself, are at least unconsciously thinking that way, even though we have repugnance for this written article. This sense of moral urgency pushes me to elaborate on why Gelernter’s commentary is problematic. Let’s consider particularly the following four statements that Professor Gelernter offers:

  • Understand that you’re here to learn how to be good citizens of the United States.
  • You are now a part-owner of Western civilization.
  • There are only two oppressed minority groups on campuses today—practicing Jews and Christians.
  • Relax—you, your fellow students and your professors already agree about nearly everything.

Understand that you’re here to learn how to be good citizens of the United States.

Professor Gelernter argues that Yale is not a place where one learn to be a global citizen since “there is no such thing.” Although Yale welcomes international students, he maintains, it cannot teach them how to be good citizens of their home countries. Indeed, this may be true to some extent; Yale does not teach about the Japanese legal system, and most of Yale’s political science lectures focus on American politics.  Nonetheless, it is wrong to argue that Yale cannot teach its students to be globally good citizens.

Goodness as a citizen derives from universal moral values, such as mutual respect, cooperation, altruism, and self-governance. This universal morality is achieved only when one uses their rational faculties and eliminates their prejudices and selfishness, so that they might attain the highest universal virtue that every rational being can judge to be good.

Being conducive or beneficial only to one’s society does not guarantee good citizenship. For instance, two hundred years ago, being a good American citizen might have meant supporting of slavery, since it would contribute to the country’s capitalistic development. However, once one contemplates what they should consider to be good as a universal rational citizen, independent of any particular society’s interests, it is obvious that they must object to slavery. Once we define goodness in a narrow and exclusive sense, we will surely end up overlooking the dehumanizing and immoral elements contained in our current concepts of goodness.

The word “university” is derived from the Latin word universitas, meaning something that is treated as an indivisible whole. Based on its original meaning, a university must be a place where people learn and teach ideas based on universal values on which everyone can agree, regardless of their backgrounds and identities. Otherwise, it would become a mere agency of the nation and might commit any sort of injustice under the name of national interests. This is extremely dangerous since human society is always under threat of moral corruption. If we only consider our society’s exclusive interests, we are reduced to the mere instruments for our society. We will be dehumanized, lose sight of our moral intuitions, and be capable of doing anything inhumane: slavery, atomic war, discrimination, and so forth. Universities must create students who could resist slavery even in the eighteenth century, and it is only possible when they pursue universal goodness. A university is a place which educates students to be good citizens. Society exists for the sake of humans, and never the other way around. Therefore, a university must educate students to contribute to the goodness of human beings in general.

Professor Gelernter argues that, “America is defined by its shared experience, and by the enemies it’s made: the Kaiser, the Nazis, the Japanese imperialists and the Soviet Union,” while the “globe” has no such shared experience. But most of those enemies are universally reprehensible, and, based on the lessons from such atrocities shared among all humans, we can discuss what is good on the global scale. If America’s enemies are not universally repugnant but only incompatible with America’s national interests, it is inappropriate to frame American society’s moral standards as based upon such self-centered viewpoints. Yale may teach sociology by focusing on American social systems, but that should not mean that Yale exclusively educates its students to be good for the United States. Rather, Yale should concentrate on creating universally good citizens who can bring the highest virtue to their own society. Of course, this will inevitably contribute to the goodness of the United States.

You are now a part-owner of Western civilization.

It is the virtue of Western civilization that allows us to pursue universal goodness. The main concern of Western civilization is universality: the more one is devoted to the Western canon, the more repugnance they will have at Professor Gelernter’s first point. However, we must be cautious about the structural oppressiveness of Western civilization. That Western civilization pursues universality does not mean that it is universal. Western civilization is always “C-minus: room for improvement,” and whenever we encounter other culture or civilization that does not fit Western values, we must reflect upon our lack of universality.

The West has blindly believed that it is universal and that it can impose its values on other societies that are not universal and therefore backward. This violent nature of Western civilisation has harmed the most vulnerable inside the Western sphere: women, children, gender minorities, the handicapped, and all other underprivileged people who do not fit in the mainstream of Western civilisation. We, as part-owners of Western civilisation, must face the fact that our civilisation has produced every kind of oppression: racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, eugenics, and more. Being a part-owner of Western civilisation means that each of us ought to be responsible for these flaws of the civilisation and to revise them from a standpoint of universal morality.

There are only two oppressed minority groups on campuses today—practicing Jews and Christians…Relax—you, your fellow students and your professors already agree about nearly everything.

Bearing this oppressive nature of Western civilisation in mind, Professor Gelernter’s advice on minority issues is impeachable. Recall how many minorities our Western civilisation has silenced and oppressed. The most fundamental evil of minority issues is that the majority ignore the very existence of minorities. Through this process, minorities are deprived of the right to call for right; they are not even allowed to express how oppressed they are. As philosopher John Rawls observed in his theory of justice, our potential to accomplish universal morality is restricted by biases from ourour knowledge of social status; wherever there is social status and categorisation, we cannot avoid forming exclusionary groups to maximise our self-interests and thereby create underprivileged minorities. Our society is neither integrated nor monolithic; if one is not in a minority, they must suspect that they are in the majority which oppresses minorities. Minorities are often invisible and unheard; therefore, we must always be cautious about minorities around us whom we may be unconsciously afflicting.

The final points symbolize how minorities are silenced. By believing in the homogeneity of our community, we build up the tyranny of the majority, which does not allow any voice that goes against the mainstream of society. However, we must understand that such attitudes harm the majority just as they do the minority. When we are satisfied with the tyranny of the majority, we can never know how far we are from universal morality. We are overwhelmed by our self-interests and never allowed to pursue the highest universal goodness. This status is dehumanizing since we have lost the core of human nature as social, moral, and rational beings.

The tyranny of the majority is far from stable: any single change in social atmosphere can sway the status of the majority. Even if one believes that their position in the majority is rigid, it is very likely that their dominance can evaporate. Being in a society that is unfriendly to minorities means never being free from the fear of being a minority and harshly oppressed. In contrast, if we always care about minorities around us and pursue universality, our position as universal moral beings will be solidified, and social contingencies, such as wealth, power, and background, will no longer divide us. Right now, we can agree on only one thing: that we have not yet succeeded in creating a standard of universal, agreeable virtue. But there is hope. By acknowledging this fact, we can set out for a journey towards universal morality as equal partners, without having a delusion that we are already universal. We still have the potential for universal morality.

Indeed, Yale is less diverse than the outside world. People here are selected based on some criteria. But this does not mean that we are monolithic. Nor does it justify promoting the tyranny of the majority. Rather, since we share some values with each other, we can more easily train ourselves to be sensitive and open-minded towards people around us. Our everyday life is education, and we should always be prepared to destroy our blind belief in our own universality. Professor Gelernter asks, “Why not disagree just once, so you can tell your grandchildren about it?” However, challenging the majority’s opinions is not for our heroism. By disagreeing with the existing social norms, we challenge and sometimes accuse ourselves, who too easily seek to be satisfied in a seemingly stable position as the majority.

None of my arguments are new. I rely on arguments made by some great rational thinkers like Tocqueville, Kant, Hegel, Arendt, Rawls, and Said. Responding to Professor Gelernter’s claims is an exercise of my rational faculties. As long as I contemplate from a rational, universal standpoint, it is never difficult to challenge his claims. However, I have to admit that I am so frequently tempted to think and act in the way that I have just criticized. Why? Because I am too weak. I am not strong enough to destroy my current beliefs and pursue rational and universal morality. It is much easier to ensconce myself in the existing norms and stay as the majority, even if I know that such an attitude is eventually detrimental to my humanity. My arguments may sound too idealistic, and it may be because Professor Gelernter’s claims are realistic that they are so attractive to us.

However, I believe that I have to be idealistic as long as I am rational. For without ideals, how could we improve ourselves? Our lives are full of moments that prove that we are imperfect, and if our realism should accept these facts as our natural status, we would be eternally imperfect. This is not rational at all. Fortunately, we, as university students, are blessed with time and resources to think about idealistic things. Compared with people outside the university, we are free from the material necessities that prevent us from soaking ourselves in idealism. Accordingly, we have a  social responsibility to take advantage of this privilege that we happen to be able to enjoy, in order to pave a path towards human perfection as moral, rational, and universal beings. Our noblesse oblige forbids us from justifying the current injustices of our society, however unrealistic it seems to totally correct such injustices.

This response to Professor Gelernter is my response to my weak self. When I criticise him I criticise myself. His article symbolises American intellectuals’ unconscious tendency to derail from the pursuit of universality and exclusively seek self- or national interests in a narrow sense. So, we should keep in mind that we may think and act the way he does and try our best to transcend this narrow mindset. Bon courage!