Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?

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When it comes to “The Game,” precedent has no say. The annual Yale-Harvard ritual evokes a rivalry that transcends the ages, as well as the win-loss record of the season’s previous games. So it was in 1979 when the heavily favored undefeated Yale Bulldogs fell to the Harvard Crimson in the season’s ultimate game by the score of 22-7.

Even the final score means nothing. In 1968, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a tie, the Harvard Crimson headline read: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

This year, the 136th edition of The Game was much anticipated. ESPN had it moved up an hour to a noon start since the Yale Bowl has no lights. Yale, with a record of 8-1, scoring an average of 37.4 points-per-game and fighting for the Ivy League title, was the odds-on favorite to defeat Harvard, losers of four straight. Was anyone surprised, then, that the first half ended with Harvard beating the Bulldogs by a solid 15-3 margin?

The halftime show changed everything.

After both bands cleared the field and as the annual George H. W. Bush honorees were being announced, several commonly dressed individuals walked assertively into the center of the field from each of the four corners.

At first, they looked to be part of the ceremony. Then it appeared they were nothing more than merry pranksters. After all, The Game has been the venue of many a delightful and memorable MIT stunt. Within minutes, though, it became apparent what it really was.

It was a throwback. An archaic expression reminiscent of a scene from Scott Johnston’s popular book Campusland (think Animal House meets 1984). Not to be outdone, Yale officials decided to channel their inner Doonesbury (think M*A*S*H the movie meets M*A*S*H the TV series).

It was a surreal juxtaposition.

And that made Yale President Peter Salovey’s words from just a few days earlier all the more relevant…

On the morning of the preceding Thursday, the President’s face strained as he searched for precisely the most perfect phrase. His initial question to the Dean’s Panel on Leadership would not only launch the inaugural session of Yale’s annual Alumni Assembly & Convocation, but set the tone for the entire weekend.

“Are our students resilient?” he asked before immediately apologizing for the implied generalization. Salovey, who earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale in 1986, then posed a contrapositive as way of explanation.

“Earlier in this football season, we all learned the power of resiliency when the Bulldogs, down by two touchdowns late in the game against Richmond, rallied to score twice in the final 90 seconds to win 28-27,” said the University President.

He then lamented that, in accepting the best of the best, perhaps Yale students lack one important trait: failure. For it is only by failing that we learn to cope with failure, learn to build resiliency and, ultimately, learn to build character vital to supporting and leading a sustainable community.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, a Harvard grad, said it more succinctly: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character.” Then again, Levy studied English, not psychology, so he tends to be more certain of his words.

Indeed, it was Levy’s team that has forever defined resiliency. The 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills are the only NFL team to go to four straight Super Bowls. That’s not what made them resilient. What made them resilient is that they lost every one of those Super Bowls. Failure did not dissuade them. It inspired them.

Was that the resiliency Salovey was referring to? Perhaps. For it was universally agreed on by the panel of distinguished Yale deans that the fields of sport offer the best environment to teach resiliency, to teach young adults that failure is a necessary part of growth, instrumental to both life and learning. You can scoff off a poor grade since few if any see it, but to fail in the public arena, now that’s real failure.

Upon hearing Salovey suggest incoming students lack a portfolio of failure, you might immediately conclude, “Well, why not just change the admissions standards and accept more students with a demonstrable record of failures?”

Aye, there’s the rub. For, wouldn’t the more creative students find a loophole to this requirement? In doing so, they could paint a picture of a personal Thermopylae they had to suffer (before, of course, their ultimate grand victory over the more powerful Persians).

Yes, adding a “Describe your most horrific failure (in no more than 250 words)” essay question to the application would only yield innumerable “how I turned lemons into lemonade” stories.

It’s just like when you’re in a job interview and you’re asked to name your greatest weakness. Out comes things like “I’m too friendly,” or “I’m too loyal” or “I tend to work more than most.”

Every weakness is a strength. Every failure is a success.

The answer, therefore, is not to change the application process, but to change the student experience. Make failure a graduation requirement.

That doesn’t quite get to the heart of the quest for resiliency to which Salovey alludes. You don’t want mere failure. You want failure that challenges the nature of the student and, in its course, improves that student’s character. In other words, Yale should require every student take a Kobayashi Maru test.

For those less familiar with Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru test represents a no-win situation every cadet must endure before graduating from Star Fleet Academy. The purpose of this test is to ensure a potential captain – a potential leader – will remain calm even as the ship is disintegrating and death looms certain.

Why is this critical to leadership? Because, no matter how bad the circumstances, how impossible the odds, there’s still a chance. Without calm and deliberate (you might even say dispassionate) leadership, however, that chance will be forfeited…

And “forfeit” was what was on of minds of the more enlightened spectators in attendance at the Yale Bowl on Saturday, November 23, 2019.

Not at first. As the half-time sit-in began, the first impression from most of the crowd was a wry “isn’t that cute” smile. The loud speakers continued to play the usual festive football music, as if to reinforce the point this was all part of the show.

The antic no doubt brought back nostalgic memories for many an alum, whether it be the Vietnam War sit-ins, the Black Panther demonstrations or the anti-Apartheid protests. “Ah, glory be the age of youth, when we were indestructible.”

Not that all those sitting at midfield were students. Officially, the event was staged by students from Harvard and Yale, but alumni and other onlookers took part.

After several minutes, though, those smiles turned to anxious frowns. The music went silent. The teams broke from their second-half warm-up routines and decided to surrender the field by going back into their respective locker rooms.

Meanwhile, not only was campus security not doing anything to remove the disruptors, but the yellow vested authority allowed crowds to rush the field to join the squatters. Rather than politely ending, the situation was broadly escalating.

It was now a mob. Reasonable people thought the better of it and left. That would count as the second worst decision made by people that day.

Soon a voice, in regular intervals, began announcing with all the dry emotion of a NASA launch commentator, “Out of respect for both teams, please return to your seats.”

As if to emphasize insolence, the trespassers shouted back, “OK, Boomer!”

To which, the Boomers in the stands, striving to capture the obvious humor, rejoined, “Get off my lawn!”

But humor could not win on this day. Anger rose victorious. With irony coming in a close second.

You see, many in attendance likely would have been sympathetic to the various causes promoted by the demonstrators. Indeed, had they chosen the tailgates in the parking lot to make their statement, they would have been more fondly received.

But right there, right at that time, with sunlight fading and their recalcitrance laid bare, each passing minute eroded the sympathy of the crowd. It was becoming quite real that, should Yale officials fail to coax them to leave the field, the Bulldogs would have to forfeit the game and any hopes of winning the Ivy League Championship.

Whatever their causes, these protesters would have only succeeded in destroying a lifetime of dreams and hopes of the dozens of young men who had worked so hard to get where they were right then and right there.

Most of the crowd did not feel comfortable being forced to be co-conspirators in such a travesty.

The “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment for the SJW movement?

That realization may have been understood far beyond New Haven. Barstool Sports tweeted: “Yale-Harvard is under delay because of a student protest. We’ve hit peak 2019.” For Boomers, this is Millennial-speak meaning “SJW has Jumped the Shark.” Hence, irony.

Finally, after some 45 minutes, the yellow vests, having doubled with reinforcements, surrounded the agitants. Those mercurial participants – the casual pranksters – fled as quickly as they had arrived. The stalwart originals – the true protesters – remained seated on the artificial turf. Eventually, security led them away. In all 42 were arrested, including Hollywood actor and Yale graduate Sam Waterson.

To extend on Salovey’s thoughts, when one hasn’t experienced failure, one begins to develop a sense of entitlement. It’s an “I’m always right” kind of attitude. It leads to an utter lack of respect for others.

This is not resilience. It’s rudeness.

The Yale football team hammered home the point. Down by two touchdowns with less than a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, the Bulldogs could have simply blamed their fate on the protesters. That’s not resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean saying you’re a winner. Resilience means going out there, fighting through inevitable failure, and winning despite the odds.

Calm, cool, behaving as if they’d been there before (remember Richmond), Yale did score two touchdowns to tie the game in its waning seconds. This, though, would be no repeat of 1968. With Dartmouth winning, a Yale tie would mean losing the Ivy League Championship.

Yale had to win. But they were fighting two foes – man, in the form of a determined Harvard team intent on demonstrating its own resilience (as it had done so many times before); and nature, in the form of the fast approaching darkness (courtesy of the one-hour delay due to a pleasant prank turned seriously wrong).

Under gloom of night, the Sons (& Daughters) of Eli rush the field to celebrate their resilient champions.

History has now forever etched on this day a new classic tale. It’s a tale of two eternal rivals, a tale of shared resiliency and, ultimately, a never-ending tale that, though Harvard’s team had fought to the end, Yale did win (in the second overtime on the cusp of day descending into night).

The difference between civil disobedience and civil disruption is the difference between oratory and anarchy. President Salovey grasps the wisdom of this distinction, but is constrained to straddle the fine line between the two opposing extremes. The Game, however, may have provided an opportunity for all to see precisely what he means.

The gridiron men of Yale have now twice passed the Kobayashi Maru test, the comeback against Harvard being the most lasting and significant. Would that those who made the choice to jeopardize this have a real opportunity to enjoy discovering their own Kobayashi Maru test.

The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part I)

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There’s this thing. It’s called the “multiverse.” Today we think of it as a series of parallel universes that exist simultaneously. This definition stems from a “lunatic” speculative physical interpretation of his mathematical equations made by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s in a 1952 Dublin lecture.

Oddly, American psychologist and philosopher William James originally coined the term in his May 1895 lecture “Is Life Worth Living?” presented to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University. James meant it to mean a chaotic amoral alternative to the universe we live in.

Today, scientists and science fiction writers prefer Schrödinger’s meaning. The multiverse theory officially emerged with a 1957 paper by Continue Reading “The World – The Universe – That Might Have Been… (Part I)”

A Look Back at Tomorrow – Review of Campusland

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I have to admit, Campusland is not the kind of book I would normally read, precisely because it’s the kind of book everybody reads. When it comes to popular fiction, I tend to abide by the Yogi Berra maxim “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too busy.”

But I had to read Campusland.

Call it “being true to your school” (the author was a classmate of mine).

Call it “reciprocity” (he’s followed my own author’s journey, including, of all things, my being interviewed by his cousin at a radio station in Minnesota).

Most important, call it “inspired curiosity” (the topic promised the allure of topical irreverence).

The story takes us through (literally) the trials and tribulations of several characters during Continue Reading “A Look Back at Tomorrow – Review of Campusland

To the Moon and Back: A Personal Retrospective

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To boldly go…
The Quest…
Man’s calling…
To boldly go…

As simple as opening the door to a strange room.

As complicated as unlocking the key to a new science.

The urge impels us all to take that first step into unchartered terrain.

Some would rather give others the initial chance.

But there comes a point when human nature drives us to follow those pioneers into a new land of innovation and invention.

That’s when we undertake The Quest.

The Quest.
To discover the undiscovered.
To explore the unexplored.
To know the unknown.

*          *          *          *          *

I wanted to write something special, something personal, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of mankind’s greatest voyage of exploration since Columbus… so far. It didn’t take me long to realize I had already written it and it had already appeared in The Sentinel. This Commentary originally appeared as “The Thrill of Beyond” in the July 20, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel to mark the 20th anniversary of America’s lunar landing. Here it is in its entirety. (Click the link in the title to see the original in text form.)
Continue Reading “To the Moon and Back: A Personal Retrospective”

The Secret to Winning: Look for Patterns of Success

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Would you like to know the secret to winning? It’s a system you can easily learn. It works every time. There’s only one trick. I’m guessing you already know what it is.

I’m a Frank Sinatra fan. That means, like any other Sinatra enthusiast, the song “My Way” inspires. (You can read my thoughts on that in “Ruling the World My Way.”) I thank my parents for this, for it was listening to their records that convinced me the Hoboken Hero deserved my attention.

Of course, I was born too late to experience Old Blue Eyes at his vintage best, but I was Continue Reading “The Secret to Winning: Look for Patterns of Success”

You Can’t Have Rainbows without a Little Rain

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photo by Marvin Palmore ’82

It’s raining, so it must be New Haven.

I approached the Elm City from the east along the shore hugging I-95. I had just spent a rare evening in Providence following a lengthy interview with a primary source. This was a much less travelled route for me as I usually visited my Alma Mater via New York City or Hartford. In a sense, then, the intensifying rain was reassuring.

It doesn’t always rain in New Haven, but girl you know it oughta. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday it rained. Think all that rain might have put a damper on things? It rained so hard on Thursday my pants didn’t dry until Sunday. Fortunately, years of Boy Scout leader training did not go to waste. I had packed a spare pair.

I hadn’t planned on going to my 35th reunion by way of Rhode Island, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity when it presented itself. The additional one hour and forty four minutes of travel time seemed like a small cost. Because it came up at the last minute, however, I failed to account for other costs. For example, whenever I visit New Haven I try to Continue Reading “You Can’t Have Rainbows without a Little Rain”

TWTWTWID* (RAW & UNCUT!)

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* These Were The Weeks That Were In Davenport (RAW & UNCUT!)

Seth insisted no one want to read TWID. He said this 35 years ago and he said this again 35 year later. That’s why he only copied half the original pages (“the ones involving the class of ’82,” he insisted). Well, it turned out he was wrong… on both counts.

First, as soon as the abridged version was published (you can read it here if you don’t believe me), word spread. Staying up well past their bed-time, normally non-nocturnal D’Port 82ers found themselves captivated with the rare literature. (It is believed, but uncomfirmed, the same holds true for the abnormally non-nocturnal D’Port 82ers, too. For the nocturnal crowd – both the normal and the abnormal – well, let’s just say the party never stopped with the arbitrary event of graduation.)

Second, the masses yearned for a copy of the complete, unabridged edition of the “granddaddy of all college newsletters” (Yale Daily News, April 13, 2001). Not satisfied with merely contacting the lowly compiler, they went straight to the source. When Seth began seeing and hearing a level of interest he’d never before seen in TWID… he still wasn’t convinced the unabridged decision made sense. So, he asked me to name “one thing” the abridged edition omitted. I one-upped him. Actually, I eleven-upped him. The RAW & UNCUT! edition of the TWID compilation contains at least these eleven fun memories not found in the Continue Reading “TWTWTWID* (RAW & UNCUT!)”

It’s Time to Outlaw Student Loans

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Now hold on. Before you think I’ve totally lost my mind, hear me out on this one.

More than two decades ago, when Hillary Clinton was busy working on her plan to nationalize our nation’s health care system (yes, that would be when she was First Lady), the idea of how to stop spiraling health care costs suddenly hit me: Outlaw health insurance.

The reasoning was basic economics: Sellers charge what the market will bear. Because consumers didn’t pay their health care costs out-of-pocket (that’s what health insurance is for), they had no incentive to “shop” for the best price. As a result, the market (i.e., those health care consumers) could bear almost any price. Given that, it was only natural prices skyrocketed. (Well, that and an unconstrained tort system that made medical malpractice one of the fastest growing industries in America.)

Now consider college costs. They’ve skyrocketed, too. Why? Because the financial “aid” Continue Reading “It’s Time to Outlaw Student Loans”

A New Beginning

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There’s nothing like strolling out to the pitcher’s mound for the first game of the season. A new season ushers in a new beginning, and with a new beginning comes new hope. For someone like me, the games may be of the past, but the smells aren’t: the sweet fragrance of the freshly mowed outfield; the gritty dryness of the dusty infield; the melts-in-your-mouth aroma of broken-in leather. With these smells, of course, bubble up the feelings of old: the promise of a clean slate; the dreams of achievements yet to be; the comradery of brothers only shared experience can forge.

Admit it. If you’ve ever played Little League Baseball, then you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever coached, then no doubt you’re amazed how a new generation of kids Continue Reading “A New Beginning”

God and Calhoun at Yale

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You can tell skilled debaters from amateurs by this simple test: skilled debaters can argue either side of the argument with equal success. It’s why public defenders are often better attorneys than public prosecutors. In most situations, public prosecutors can choose which case to take to court. Given this option, it’s not surprising to see them avoid cases they don’t agree with. Public defenders have no similar choice. They must make a case for the defendant whether they believe that defendant is guilty or not. Unlike private defense attorneys, who may choose not to represent any particular party, public defenders have no right to pick and choose their cases.

It’s easy to see why people sometimes think less of the legal profession. The ability to argue either side of any issue with the same fervor can indicate a certain level of amorality that can make a preacher’s skin crawl. After all, in the court of law, judgment is fungible – the power of a lawyer’s rhetoric can sway it. On the other hand, from the point of view of the pulpit, Continue Reading “God and Calhoun at Yale”