In a tale of two schools, second-best is far better

The Yale Daily News is forever bleeding; it is covered in the crimson blood of another school. Over six issues of the News (from Oct. 15-22) there were seven front-page articles concerning Harvard University, a somewhat well-known institution of higher education in the city of Cambridge, Mass. These articles range from the relevant (Harvard’s alcohol policy for The Game) to the slightly irrelevant (the salary of Harvard’s financial advisers) to the completely irrelevant (a Harvard grad student’s manslaughter conviction), and yet all have found a way onto these same pages. Why is this the case? Because it’s Harvard.

Last Friday’s article about a new college ranking demonstrated empirically what most of the world believes: Yale is perceived as one of the top two universities in the United States, but Harvard is first. The study examined the preferences of high-school students who were accepted into the top colleges in the nation (that is, it studied high-school students like we were). As The New York Times said of the same ranking, “The degree of Harvard’s dominance [is] staggering.”

Notice that this dominance has nothing to with the substance of a Yale or Harvard education or the quality of the academics at each university or even the statistics of each university. It simply results from the fact that the world sees Harvard as better than Yale because Harvard was here first. We can debate each institution’s relative scholarship or the success of its alumni or a million other factors, but this would be silly. No number of Yalies in the Oval Office will change the fact that we were established 65 years too late. In the game of public opinion, Yale’s team may fight to the end, but Harvard will win.

This article should not be counted as evidence of my being a misyalethrope, if I may coin such a word. I’m in love with what former Dean Richard Brodhead might call “the good of this place.” I am proud of my self-gained knowledge of Yale history, of the splendor of the academic atmosphere, of those who have passed down these very streets on their way to greatness, of my devotion to the cause of defeating Harvard in football. But I believe I state what all reasonable Yalies know in the darkest recesses of their hearts: No matter how wonderful we know Yale is, the world still considers Harvard to be better.

Accepting this fact, what is a poor Yalie to do? The optimistic thought would be that if we work hard enough, we will be able to reverse our perceived secondary nature. To me this seems unlikely. It could be possible to convince ourselves that Yale’s superiority exists in another form, in the intangible stuff that makes so many of us devoted to the small blue Y invisibly branded into our foreheads. This seems cheap (after all, we really don’t know much of anything about any other college). We could try to believe that such appearances don’t matter; the problem with this is that Yale is a great university because the best and brightest want to be here on account of the perception that Yale is a great university. I see but one option: acceptance.

What I ask you to consider is what we as human beings can learn from Yale’s situation. We have matriculated at the mathematical limit of perceived institutional greatness; we are forever approaching perfection but never arriving at it. As the eternal runner-up, it is Yale that represents what my 11th-grade English teacher would call The Human Condition.

In the “Iliad,” the battles between humans are always more fascinating than the battles between the gods. Why? Because the gods are perfect in their immortality and as such cannot be figures of empathy. But even Achilles, the closest thing to a god as possible, is nothing more than a sad creature who eventually must accept his mortal fate along with the rest of us wretched humans. What is Yale if not Achilles, a tragic hero of incredible greatness, a being so close and yet so far?

Thus Yale affords us an optimal understanding of the two extremes of humanity: We perceive our awesome dominance over (almost) all else, but humbly recognize the existence of One above us. Thus is life; how good things get is never how good we would wish them to be. This is what gives us our humanity, what makes moderately sized blobs of flesh and blood such as ourselves so fascinating. It’s the tragedy of human existence, and the sooner we can appreciate it, in Yale and in ourselves, the better off we will be. And if not, we can always look down on Princeton.

Zachary Zwillinger is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.