First Days at Yale

Opportunity and responsibility

The Freshman Address

Michael Marsland

Michael Marsland

Yale College freshmen wave handkerchiefs while singing "Bright College Years" during the Freshman Assembly. View full image

I am delighted to join Dean [Mary] Miller ['81PhD] in welcoming you, the Class of 2014, to Yale College. I want to welcome also the relatives and friends who have accompanied you here, and especially your parents. As a father of four college graduates, I know how proud you parents are of your children's achievement, how hopeful you are for their future, and how many concerns—large and small—you have at this moment.

Let me try to reassure you. Your children are going to love it here! And you are going to enjoy your association with Yale, too, whether you are a returning graduate or one of the vast majority of parents who never set foot in New Haven until your children started to think about where to go to college. You may take comfort in learning that surveys have shown that Yale parents are the most satisfied in the Ivy League. So, welcome to the Yale family! We are so pleased to have your children with us, and we will do our best to provide them with abundant opportunities to learn and thrive in the four years ahead.

And to you, the Class of 2014, I make the same pledge. For you, these next four years will be a time of opportunity unlike any other. Here you are surrounded by astonishing resources: fascinating fellow students from all over the world, a learned and caring faculty, intimate residential college communities, a magnificent library, two extraordinary art museums, an outstanding museum of natural history, superb athletic facilities, and student organizations covering every conceivable interest—the performing arts, politics, and community service among them. You will have complete freedom to explore, learn about new subjects, meet new people, and pursue new passions. I want to encourage you, in every way that I can, to make the most of this rare and unique opportunity.

Let's start with your academic program. Most likely, you will be overwhelmed by the more than 2,000 courses available to you. You will inevitably miss out on 98 percent of them. But let me urge you nonetheless to sample widely. Each of the scholarly disciplines provides a different perspective on human experience; each allows you a different window on our accumulated knowledge of nature and culture, and each, quite literally, allows you to see the world differently. If I could offer only one piece of advice about selecting courses, it would be this: stretch yourself. Don't assume that you know in advance what fields will interest you the most. Take some courses in fields that are entirely outside the range of your past experience. You will not only emerge as a more broadly educated person, but you will also stand a better chance of discovering an unsuspected passion that helps to shape the future course of your life.

By studying philosophy, for example, you will learn to reason more rigorously and to discern more readily what constitutes a logically consistent argument and what does not. And you will study texts that wrestle directly with the deepest questions of how one should live.

Your professors of literature, music, and art history will teach you to read, listen, and see closely, and help you to develop a keener appreciation for the artistry that makes literature, music, and visual art sublime representations of human emotions, values, and ideas. Whether you major in these subjects or not, your appreciation of what is true and beautiful may be forever enriched.

Your professors of history will teach you to appreciate the challenging art of reconstructing the past, and to understand how meaning is extracted from experience. This may help you to gain perspective on your own experience.

Years ago, when I taught introductory economics in Yale College, I always began by telling the students that the course would change their lives. Why? Because economics will open you to an entirely new and different way of understanding how the world works. Economics will not prescribe for you how society should be organized, or the extent to which individual freedom should be subordinated to collective ends, or how the fruits of human labor should be distributed. But understanding the logic of markets will give you a new way to think about these perpetually important questions. In similar fashion, each of the other social sciences—psychology, political science, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics—will give you a different perspective on human experience in society.

Some of you may already have a passion for science or mathematics, and you may have set your sights on a major in science, math, or engineering. There is so much in these pursuits to excite the imagination that I hardly need elaborate. In science, we are in the midst of discovering the causes of human disease, the mechanisms of evolution, and the origins of the universe. In engineering, we have unprecedented opportunities to develop new materials, new medical devices, and new sources of energy. One of the virtues of studying science and engineering at a place like Yale is that you can practice science and engineering while you study it; you can work in research laboratories alongside your professors on problems at the very frontier of knowledge.

With respect to science, I have two messages for you that are mirror images. First, if you are someone with an early or emerging passion for science, take the time to sample other subjects as well. Even if you pursue science or engineering as a career, broadening your education in the other liberal arts will both enrich your lives and improve your science. Second, if you do not think yourself a "science type," don't just fulfill the science requirement; give science a serious try. During the past decade, we have developed a number of problem-oriented science courses without prerequisites; they are meant to give you a rigorous exposure to science without the comprehensiveness of a survey course designed for those already committed to a major or to a pre-medical curriculum. Try one or two of these courses, early on; you may be surprised by your newfound enthusiasm.

And, to complete this mini-tour of the curriculum, we will not let you forget about writing, math, and languages. Some attention to these skills is required, but there are many ways to satisfy the requirements. Again, I would urge you to stretch yourselves; try something different—an expository or creative writing class, statistics instead of more calculus, or a new language, even as you pursue further study of one you already know.