column Daniel Silverman
When Yale-NUS College was inaugurated in 2013, I was confident that my classmates and I were trailblazers defying stereotypes about academic institutions; we would challenge the very assumptions of what it meant to be a school. I am no longer so naïve. From my perspective, the student body as a whole has forsaken the chance offered at Yale-NUS to explore and revolutionize how a college should operate. Instead, we have chosen to embrace familiarity and comfort over risk and adventure when confronted with pivotal developmental opportunities at Yale-NUS. More so than anything else, I lament how the student body as a whole has become more concerned with how we are judged by external sources rather than our willingness to explore, test, and build new foundational norms and traditions.
Perhaps best exemplifying my discontent with our community’s attitude toward external opinions was the ‘Silverman Games’ I campaigned for during last year’s constitutional convention. Had the disapproval concerned fundamental ideas and challenges regarding Games themselves — simply a campaigning tool for the elections — I would have been more willing to revise my idea. However, the foremost problem the Silverman Games raised was that it would be a source of negative criticism for Yale-NUS by onlookers around the world. The litmus test was not if Silverman Games worked effectively, but if the New York Times wrote an unfavorable article about us.
Similarly, I was disappointed with one aspect of Enkhzul Badral’s recent article on this year’s student government elections. While I respect her concerns with the supposed lack of seriousness in candidate posters, I do not appreciate that one of the issues raised was how people outside the student body would react to our campaign posters. “Consider the professors and visitors, who see the posters in our elevators and ask, ‘What is that?’” This is an increasingly growing and dominant attitude at Yale-NUS. It is not, “Will this work?” but rather, “What will people think of us if we do this?” I raise the examples of student government elections and campaigns because they happen to be the two most memorable occurrences regarding this phenomenon that happened to me. They are, however, certainly not extraneous events.
To paraphrase Admiral David Farragut, “Damn the outside opinions, full speed ahead!” That should have been our unofficial motto from the beginning of last year. The criticisms of the Jim Sleeper-types and the possible judgments of our future selves should have been the least of our concern. We should have done something incredibly unconventional at every opportunity. Regarding the student government, we should have invested in something untraditional in line with the unconventionality of our school. Our first student government should have been something as bizarre as a Makhno anarchy, a Cthulhu theocracy, an oligarchy, or anything else that would have pushed our imaginations to the limits. For the student government campaigns, the community should have embraced any and all styles of PR without concerns of how we would be judged by others.
Yes, there is always the possibility of embarrassment and failure in any revolutionary and new endeavor. But we should dare to fail. So what if our first, second, and third student governments failed? The student body survived for over a year without any formal student representative body and it could continue to do so. The worst that could have happened was that we would have had to start from ground zero again. More importantly, even if we had failed, we would have at least emerged confident knowing that we tried pushing the boundaries of the known and tested. We would have proved to ourselves that we were willing to test our potential to the maximum.
By prioritizing our public standing over our willingness to explore, we are self-censoring our own potential. Many students joined Yale-NUS because they were attracted to the idea of taking a risk. Why are we then supporting a mindset that cements the exact opposite? Years from now, after we graduate, some of us may wonder what could have happened had we more fervently experimented at Yale-NUS. But we will never know, because we consciously decided as a community to stick to already trodden paths known to be successful.
I accept that many of my fellow students will disagree with my points here. This is, after all, coming only from one person. But this also comes from a person who has spent at least one year at eight different schools across four different continents. Yale-NUS may be my first college experience, but I have personally been involved with a variety of schools throughout my life. When considering my experiences at my past schools and how they were structured in terms of student groups, student government, prevailing attitudes about conformity amongst students, and many other categories regarding a community, Yale-NUS is only really differentiated by the fact that it is an undergraduate institution.
Regardless of how I feel and what I am disappointed by, I understand that whatever path the student body pursues is beyond my direct control. While there is technically still time to change everything, this emerging conformity is closing in on two years. I imagine that few will be willing to invest the time and effort to reorganizing and restructuring existing attitudes, organizations, etc. on top of current commitments and schoolwork. And that’s okay. We will all undoubtedly have positive college experiences. We just won’t have the daring, pioneering, and experimental experiences that many of us would like to have. Nonetheless, we’re going to do fine. We’ll be safe. We’ll be
alright all trite.