We’re frequently told that we are the inheritors of an elite legacy, of something truly unique in collegiate education, of a mystical tradition dating back to 1701. Yale certainly has its old-fashioned aspects: secret societies, Handsome Dan, tweed jackets, cups at Mory’s, the college system and its unique dining halls. Recently, I’ve heard some of the vestiges of Yale’s distinct traditions decried as “elitist” and “dated.” And as one livid GESO supporter reminded me in a response to one of my columns about the farce of graduate student unionization: “This isn’t your father’s academy.” No, indeed it’s not. But if Yale reflected some aspects of “my father’s academy,” would it be such a bad thing?
The Yale of 50 years ago was, of course, a much different place. Women, minorities and any notion of “diversity” were, by and large, nonexistent on campus. It was still very much the college of the New England blue blood. The convulsive cultural changes of the 1960s shattered the traditional Yale mold and transformed the University from the closed citadel of that proverbial “Yale man” into an institution more representative of American society.
No one would argue that these changes, aimed at creating a more diverse student body, were for the worse. The opening of Yale’s gates to capable women and minorities and the withering-away of an old boy’s club predicated on male chauvinism, racism and nepotism was not only just, but necessary to keep the University at the pinnacle of higher education.
What then, is worth reclaiming or keeping from the hallowed Yale traditions? Much, I think. The old devotional, “For God, for Country and for Yale,” sums up what Yale has lost and further stands to lose with the passing of time. Now, it seems that good old motto is something akin to a mangy junkyard dog: We keep it around for an occasional laugh, but ultimately, it serves no real purpose; it’ll be dead soon anyway.
“God” isn’t much of a motivator anymore. Surely the enlightened, 21st-century Yalie, schooled in the ways of pluralism, relativism and post-modernist solipsism, knows better than to worship the fire-and-brimstone God of Jonathan Edwards and Elihu Yale. Today, to declare Christianity — or any other religion for that matter — the path of Truth would be tantamount to bigotry. It’s not that religious faith isn’t wholly alien to Yale culture: It’s perfectly acceptable as long as it’s a feel-good, social justice-geared, everybody’s-right-in-his-own-way spirituality.
Religion once included basic standards of virtue and morality, but these too seem to be on their way out. I’m told by my suitemates that “good and evil don’t exist,” that they’re merely convenient categories to label that which we do and do not like. “Virtue,” as I’ve been corrected in philosophy section, is a way of “imposing the morality of a few against the wishes of the many.” One student further opined that classical Platonic conceptions of virtue are “hegemonic” and “heteronormative.” Faith and its attendant morality of right and wrong are apparently no longer politically correct enough to be guiding principles. Strike out “for God” from Yale’s motto.
As for “for Country,” Yalies generally don’t lack in love for their country; they just rarely show it. Aside from an activist minority that is vocal in its contempt for America, most, whatever their political leanings, are united in the laudable desire to make this great country greater. Even still, public patriotism is approached with caution. American symbols are considered the fetishized objects of right-wing zealots. And to an extent, it’s true: If an American flag is hanging from a dorm window, chances are it’s a fervent Republican’s. It seems that many of those on the left at Yale are careful to keep patriotism at a safe distance, as if to not identify with the Republican war-mongering the flag implies.
Another curiosity: the great American values and universal goods of “freedom” and “liberty” don’t seem to be revered as such, but rather identified with the rhetoric of the odious George W. Bush. And the U.S. military, banished from Yale since the Vietnam War, is still a pariah on campus. With the overwhelming support of the undergraduate student body, the Yale Law School continues to have the gall to ban JAG recruiters from official visits.
Lastly, there is “for Yale.” I hope not to be too presumptuous when I say that most of us dearly love our alma mater and its idiosyncrasies, but at the same time, we are embarrassed of her. It’s that familiar pang of guilt that creeps up when someone asks us where we go to school. The great Yale pride of the past no longer exists. At any home football game, there are at least 10 times as many alums as students. Maybe it is due in part to the fact that our athletic teams are consistently terrible, but I’d venture that it is because attending Yale is an elite privilege, and for that, we feel guilty and insecure.
And so we lambaste the obvious signs of elitism: the senior societies, Berkeley’s organic menu, the $13 billion endowment, Yale’s lavish architecture juxtaposed with New Haven’s impoverished slums, and so on. But the fact is that elitism is inextricably tied with Yale and has been for 300 years. Yale used to be a university exclusively for the economically privileged; now it’s a university for the academically privileged. The guilt of elitism is an inescapable fact with which we’ll forever have to live, and relinquishing the traditions of old will not alleviate our self-consciousness. Instead, we should reach back into the great traditions of Yale College and be comfortable believing in God and Truth, showing patriotism for Country, and having spirit for our mother Yale.
Keith Urbahn is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.