A Contrarian Education

Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Freshman Assembly, Yale College Class of 2012

President Levin, Provost Hamilton, colleagues who have joined us on the stage today, families, and members of the Class of 2012: I am delighted and honored to address you this morning. It is a great privilege to welcome 1,320 freshmen to Yale.

In years past, I have relied on the observations of my field – social psychology – to raise issues that struck me as relevant for this occasion. Today, I would like to discuss with you a notion inspired by observing the behavior of Yale students: the upside potential of intellectual nonconformity. That’s a social psychologist’s fancy way of saying “the pleasures of not following the crowd.”

Having announced this as my topic, I wish to point out – quickly, in fact – that there are times when conformity is a “good thing.” For instance, right now I am grateful that everyone here conformed to the social norm that says, “Wear clothing to public events.” I am relieved, as well, that most of you have decided to conform to the norm of attending to what the dean has to say on ceremonial occasions rather than to use this as the opportunity to listen to Rihanna on your iPods. You could have chosen to behave otherwise, but you did not. And because you made the decision to conform – a good decision in this particular situation – we are able to have a meaningful experience together this morning. However, my message to the Class of 2012 today argues for the advantages of what I would like to call a contrarian approach to your undergraduate education.

A contrarian is someone who does not necessarily conform but rather is inclined to do precisely the opposite of what everyone else is doing. The term usually refers to a particular style of investing. The contrarian investor sells what everyone else is buying and buys what everyone else is selling. My argument is that you may be able to make the most of your Yale College experience if you choose not to follow the herd but rather to find the underappreciated sectors of Yale and focus your attention and effort there. It goes without saying, though, that I still would like you to wear clothing while you do!

Now what inspired me to encourage you to be a contrarian? I was looking over some statistics last summer and discovered, first, that Yale College students populated 72 different major concentrations during the last four years. But, despite this amazing array of options – this celebration of intellectual opportunity – 55% of last year’s graduating class majored in just six different programs of study (History, Political Science, Economics, Psychology, Biology, and English). This is an astonishing pile-up of students in a small number of fields.

Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong with pursuing these disciplines, which clearly galvanize interest for many reasons. After all, I am a Psychology professor who, in fact, majored in Psychology. And President Levin was a History major who later studied Economics, and it doesn’t appear that these choices have hurt him at all! Still, I wonder: Wouldn’t Yale students benefit from closer relationships with faculty members, additional and unique opportunities to participate in research and scholarship, and even smaller classes if we could just induce more of you to “zag” when your classmates “zig”? You might even discover that your intellectual calling was thoroughly unanticipated.

The challenge is increasingly acute: 58% of the current senior class is majoring in these six programs of study, and of the juniors whose majors have been recorded so far by the Registrar’s Office, 60% are clustered in these six fields. I should not imply that this is an entirely new problem, however; the percentage of students enrolled in the top six majors crossed the 60% mark at least two other times in the last 50 years. And it has consistently been above 50%, although the six popular majors have not always been exactly the same ones.

Allow me to make my point in another way: For the graduating Class of 2008, there were 18 major concentrations with only one student each. Eleven other fields had only two majors. Think about the especially close attention 40 students received from their faculty advisors in these 29 programs and departments. Consider the opportunities appreciated by these students to get to know some wonderful scholars and researchers personally, and receive their undivided attention; this is literally so in fields with only one major!

It is important to mention – once again – that there is nothing wrong with choosing a popular course of study while here at Yale. The “Big Six” represent fascinating fields of study, areas of inquiry of historic and contemporary significance; they are majors that complement a liberal education and provide an auspicious beginning to a lifetime of learning and leadership. My only worry is that some students choose these major concentrations merely because “everyone else is doing so.”

Thinking about who you are and then going your own way is not so easy; I understand that, especially in situations that are fraught with uncertainty. Although the nonconformist is glorified in literature and film – consider James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, for example – research in social psychology has shown time and time again that we actually prefer those individuals who conform, people who follow the crowd. Quite simply, we like them better than nonconformists. Consider the words we use to describe people who tend to go along with others: They are “reliable friends,” “team players,” and “consensus builders.” Individuals who fail to conform are described as “rogue elephants,” “loose cannons,” “eccentric,” and – in the social science jargon – “deviates.” 1

In a classic psychological experiment, students were asked to discuss what to do about a hypothetical juvenile delinquent named Johnny Rocco.2 Unknown to these students, actors were assigned to play one of three roles during the discussion: The “modal” took a position that conformed exactly to the group average; the “deviate” took a position exactly opposite the rest of the group; and the “slider” first agreed with the “deviate” but then gradually shifted his point of view to be in line with the “modal.” Who did the students like best at the end of the experiment? The “modal,” of course, and then the “slider,” once he changed his mind. They liked the “deviate” least of all. So bucking the trend – being a contrarian – can sometimes mean taking a risk, and it can have social costs.

Yet, here’s the real irony: After more than 300 years, a curriculum has evolved at Yale allowing considerable freedom and choice. This is the hallmark of a liberal education. But it was not always this way. The opportunity to choose a course of study came neither quickly nor easily. You see, when Yale was founded in 1701 – by dissatisfied graduates of Harvard – Yale’s aim was to cultivate an educated clergy with proper religious views. Freshmen studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in order to read the Bible and biblical commentaries. In subsequent years, students studied logic, natural philosophy, ethics, geography, metaphysics, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.3 But there was essentially no choice. All Yale students followed the same curriculum, reflecting what former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti described as “a unified political and religious culture.” 4

Life in the eighteenth-century classroom left little opportunity for contrarian thinking. The teaching method – if you could call it that – emphasized rote memorization and recitation. Extracurricular activities were also rather limited: Students ice-skated, fished, and hiked, and they did their share of carousing. But on the whole, time outside class was as rigidly structured as the curriculum was highly formalized. Significant change to this curriculum only came in the middle of the nineteenth century when students began to elect a few courses of their own choosing. At first, only seniors were allowed this privilege, but later in the century, it was extended to juniors. Opportunities to sample from thousands of courses and participate in hundreds of extracurricular groups emerged only in the twentieth century.5

The potential to elect a contrarian path – so characteristic of Yale now – was hard earned over the centuries. How can you not take advantage of it?

Someone who did is Robert McGinnis, a member of the Class of 2002 and now a graduate student in our School of Engineering. With his faculty mentor in Environmental Engineering, he developed, while an undergraduate, a forward-osmosis, water-desalination system that has been patented. And, at the same time, he wrote plays, including one for his senior project. Rob actually was a Theater Studies major. While still hoping to see his plays performed on Broadway, Rob – whose combination of Theater Studies and Environmental Engineering was unique among his fellow students – would like to be an engineering professor someday and continue his research on how to make seawater drinkable.

Here is another example where a contrarian attitude may lead to opportunities not anticipated in advance. We expect that all Yale College students will participate in at least one international experience during their undergraduate years. These experiences can take the form of credit-bearing classes, internships, or research experiences, and they can be scheduled during a term or summer. One of our programs involves a partnership with Peking University (PKU) in Beijing, China. Students in this program live on the PKU campus with Chinese roommates and enroll in courses taught both by Yale and PKU faculty.

Sophie von Haselberg, who graduated last May, was a contrarian who signed up to be a pioneering participant in this program’s very first semester. She told me that she was “not interested in going somewhere I would feel completely comfortable . . . somewhere the cultural norms were nearly identical to those of America. . . . The PKU program . . . combined everything I had been looking for . . . and it was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. Although the program was stressful at times . . . it was an incredibly singular experience, and one that taught me about myself, my friends, my interests, and most importantly, Chinese culture.” Sophie chose to major in Sociology. She said that because “it is a small major, I got to take many seminars with few students so that we each received personal attention, and there was a real sense of community among the professors and the students.” Soon, Sophie will move to China where she will be working in strategic planning with a firm in Shanghai.

Today you embark upon a new trail. But how can you even find it? How do you identify its markings? You have to heed your curiosity, follow your interests, and trust that you might not even know where the trail will lead. You have to be brave — yet, you are not alone; wise guidance is all around you.

I heard a story about the 2004 Tony Award-winning Best Actor, Jefferson Mays, a Yale Classics major whose time here began in this very room about twenty-five years ago. After a performance of his signature piece, I Am My Own Wife, Jefferson was asked how long he prepared to enter the stage before his virtuoso performance: “Every word is so precise, every gesture so nuanced, you must prepare for hours.” The actor replied, “I don’t really prepare at all. When it’s getting close to the start of the play, I begin to wander from the dressing room until I eventually find myself backstage. I stand there for a few minutes and listen to the audience. As I listen, my terror grows as I begin to forget everything I know about the role I’m about to play. Then, when I don’t know how I can possibly get through the show, I walk out on stage.” 6

How many of us are willing to approach our stage with that level of trust in our abilities to rise to the challenge, to find our way? And yet, as you search for the trailhead of your contrarian path, there will be times when you must be willing to walk the edge. In your four years here at Yale, there are countless cliffs with beckoning uncertainties. It is in your scramble back to solid land that your own leading character can emerge. Be brave enough to get lost in the whirlwind of your own curiosities now and again. Dare to “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” 7

Being a contrarian may not always be easy. As Sophie said, sometimes her program in China was “stressful.” But at the same time it was, she asserted, “incredible.” What kind of a path through Yale College would you like to take? The tried-and-true? The path of least resistance? Or one less popular? Do you think Yale admitted you because we saw in your application a follower or a potential leader?

There are times when we all – even your dean – must depart from the comfortable path, say “good-bye” to what is familiar, even to what we have grown to love, and leave it for uncharted waters where unknown challenges lurk but fresh opportunities for learning await. Most of you have already been rewarded for selecting alternatives that allowed you to deviate from the crowd. And I suspect that if at Yale you continue to choose roads less traveled by, it will make all the difference in your experience here.8

Welcome Class of 2012!

1 These observations were made vividly in one of the best books on social psychology, one written by Elliot Aronson, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz [Aronson, E. (1999). The Social Animal (8th Edition). New York: Worth/Freeman]. I read the first edition of this book while still in high school, and it is part of the reason why I decided to study psychology.

2 Schachter, S. (1951). “Deviation, Rejection, and Communication.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190-207.

3 Kraus, J.W. (1961).  “The Development of a Curriculum in the Early American Colleges.” History of Education Quarterly, 1, 64-76.

4 Giamatti, A.B. (1988). “Schools and the Ideal of Education” in A Free and Ordered Space. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., p. 63.

5 Pierson, G.W. (1983). A Yale Book of Numbers: Historical Statistics of the College and University 1701-1976. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

6 Presentation by L. Jefferson Mays in “Theater Acting 101,” a course taught by Todd Salovey at the University of California, San Diego.

7 From Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, © 1964 by Special Rider Music.

8 Apologies to Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken).