Ben Trachtenberg, Yale

Ben Trachtenberg, Yale

A weeklong electronic journal.
Oct. 9 1997 3:30 AM

Ben Trachtenberg, Yale

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       Yesterday I discussed books, great books, for three hours and 45 minutes. Yale offers freshmen a special program in the humanities consisting of three two-semester courses: one each in literature, history and politics, and philosophy. Each class has one 50-minute lecture and two one-hour-and-15-minute discussion sections per week.
       Multiply one hour and 15 minutes by three (on Tuesdays and Thursdays I have all three sections), and you get a lot of thinking, sitting, and pontificating. It can be somewhat overwhelming. We have so much reading that my father sent me a small bust of Homer for inspiration (where does one buy such a thing?); Homer turns a blind eye to my procrastination.
       I truly enjoy the books we read. Right now we're reading Sophocles' Antigone for literature, Plato's Republic for history and politics, and because Plato's writing is so great that even other Great Books pale in comparison, we're discussing Plato's Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and Euthyphro in philosophy class as well. What is justice? Is Plato's Socrates at all like the historical Socrates? Any reader who e-mails me the answers will make me appear much smarter in section tomorrow.
       The weather this week has been very conducive to laziness. It felt like quite an accomplishment to leave a conversation taking place on a comfortable blanket on the sunny Old Campus to go to class in a windowless basement. The Old Campus is a quad surrounded by freshman dorms, and students in 10 of Yale's 12 residential colleges live there. The residential colleges, which look like ordinary dorms to the uninitiated, are one's home during sophomore, junior, and senior years, and they form small communities within the larger university.
       When my classes were done, my girlfriend and I reviewed our days and talked about our high schools. Having graduated from Washington's Sidwell Friends School, I struggle to understand the life of a Galveston, Texas, public-school student. I grabbed dinner and headed back to my dorm at 8. There, I enjoyed reading my first article in a national publication.
       In the evening, I joined about 20 other Ezra Stiles College students in a fireside chat with our dean, Susan Rieger. The dean's job is to ensure that we all graduate, and at the chat she warned us of the dangers of alcohol, drugs, staying up late, squabbling with one's roommate, cheating, paying too little attention to our studies, and paying too much attention to our studies. The fireside chat, which seemed more like a lampside monologue, was mandatory.
       As midnight approached, my common room filled with its usual collection of people looking to avoid work, socialize, eat, engage in weighty discussions, or any combination of the above. We ordered Chinese and, as usual, there wasn't quite enough for everyone. The sad reality of Yale food made us all rejoice when my friend Gene Bialczak mentioned the impending arrival of 50 pounds of pepperoni, provolone, and chocolate chip cookies from home; Gene stands by the 50-pound figure. We stayed up late, sacrificing sleep for stories, boasts, jokes, and friendship.

Ben Trachtenberg is a freshman at Yale University.

(Note: Earlier this semester, the "Yale Five" announced that, in defiance of school policy, they were refusing to live in the campus dormitories because living in co-ed quarters violated their Orthodox Jewish beliefs. Last week, an MIT freshman died of alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party after having consumed about 16 drinks. Have our nation's elite colleges become hotbeds of binge drinking and sexual abandon? SLATE's diarists this week tell us what life at these top schools is really like.)