Every semester one of the first questions we ask in Life Worth Living is about what constitutes Yale’s vision of a life worth living. As formative a time as college is, knowing what vision of life the university is advocating is basic to students’ ability to critically examine their own visions of the good life. In critically examining the university’s vision, we ask students not only to pay attention to what Yale says explicitly about its vision and values, but also to keep a special eye out for the ways Yale sends implicit messages about what it values. To that end, students are invited to explore everything from admissions materials and speeches at commencement and first-year assemblies, on the one hand, to the kinds of alumni who are celebrated and after whom buildings are named, on the other. Many students write in their papers not only about the vision of a life worth living Yale projects, but also about the ways in which Yale struggles to live up to its own ideals, and the way the university handles disagreement among its various constituencies as to what makes for a flourishing life.
This semester, after students wrote their papers, we invited Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway to the class to engage with these crucial questions. He discussed why Yale places limits on how much it communicates explicitly about its vision of a life worth living, and also how his own vision of a life worth living helped him navigate his role in the Yale administration during a period of significant tension and many movements for change within the University during the 2015-6 school year, including questions about race and inclusivity. Dean Holloway opened by expressing the importance, to a university, of exploring and considering visions of a life worth living:
Thank you all for, not just having me here, but thank you for taking this class. I hope you believe that it’s a pretty worthwhile experience. When I found out about it, I was excited to see the class, and it’s some sort of commentary, I think, that it’s such an unusual class…
When you think about the explicit declaration that we are for a particular mission, I think it’s actually important that we articulate, we are here to be an exemplar of what a university is: a site for learning engagement and, I hope, for pushing boundaries in every appropriate way in terms of the world of ideas and thinking. If part of that pushing involves thinking through, or having a class like this that thinks through, larger philosophical or pragmatic issues of a life worth living, that’s fabulous. I see what this class is doing in terms of asking that question as part of the larger project of what a university is all about.
On the topic of his addresses to the incoming first-year class, Dean Holloway emphasized the value he places on drawing on a diversity of voices:
I’ve always taken it as an important opportunity to establish a marker of what the university values…, for the first-year students, what we hope you’ll aspire to while you’re here, and for me, the University should be a place of civil contestation…, of a deep willingness to be honest about our past, and to find ways to move forward—ideally together, but, if not, separately—but always in the pursuit of asking really hard questions of ourselves, of the institution, of society. One of the ways that I do that… is through the sources you pick to tell your story. If you look at any of my freshman assembly addresses, you’re going to find that I’m relying on speakers—I’m using their voice—that, safe to say, other Yale College Deans haven’t used, historically speaking. And to me that’s a signal… that I think James Baldwin’s voice is really important to understanding the American experiment. I think… Frederick Douglass is important to the American experiment… I think it’s important to signal that the world of ideas to which you’re being welcomed in terms of your freshman assembly, does not come from one tradition, does not come from one background, does not come from one way, and to me that is an explicit… important marker that we need to ask questions of everybody if we are to be ethical in what we’re doing as a university. And to me, that is what a purposeful education is all about.
To hear the full discussion, including Dean Holloway’s answers to questions about how to practically live out one’s values, the role of athletics in a life worth living, and how he personally stays grounded, watch the full video here.