Ten Things They Didn’t Tell You at Freshman Orientation

David Gelernter:

Welcome to Yale. Please disregard what you’ve been told so far, and follow these instructions.

1. Understand that you’re here to learn how to be good citizens of the United States. Many of you come from Japan or Ghana or France, and we’re glad to have you. But Yale can’t teach you to be a good Japanese citizen; we don’t know how. Nor can we teach you to be a “global citizen” or “citizen of the world,” because there is no such thing. The “globe” has no citizens, because the globe, as such, has no art, religion, music, literature, theater, traditions, folk songs, heroes, traumas or TV stations; no tastes, fads, styles, treasures or shared experience. So you might as well learn to be good Americans for now.

Like all nations, 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, among others—in just the past century or so. We are the one nation that always marks itself “C-minus: room for improvement!” Americans work constantly to clarify, concentrate and distill our principles and become more like ourselves—more like the luminous city on a hill to which all nations look up.

2. You are now a part-owner of Western civilization. This should be no surprise: You have come, after all, to one of the country’s leading schools for training Western leaders. You can tell this and other American colleges are Western because they are dedicated to noisy public argument about the truth, to the teaching of history without chauvinism, factionalism or (theoretically) self-hatred, and to competition among everyone over everything. Furthermore, we love sports more every year, starting at age 2, until at last we die of sheer boredom.

3. Now that you are a college student, learn skills. Everything else can wait. Learning science, mathematics or engineering centers on learning skills. Much of the arts, letters and history is centered on skills too. Learn as much music as you can. Master at least one foreign language completely. Reading and writing English are the most important skills of all.

4. Listen skeptically. Grade-school education is built on the myth that the teacher knows what he’s doing. Here, things are different. Never close your mind to the possibility that your teacher—despite his authoritative tone, his many books, papers, patents, theorems or epic poems, his international reputation and his world-wide following—might not know what he’s talking about.