Finding substance beneath our rallying cry

Imagine: A guest speaker comes to class or a special event. She warms up the crowd with an unusual joke: “So, I received my undergraduate degree from that other place up in Cambridge, but don’t hold it against me … .” The students titter.

Echoes of this joke are contained in the News’ endorsement of Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, which begins with an apology: “It would seem natural for us to endorse Hillary Clinton for president. She attended Yale Law School — the roots of the Clintonian dynasty are here in New Haven — and left an accomplished and well liked alumna.”

But I ask, what kind of solidarity should we really feel for someone who went to Yale? Is a Yalie distrust of all things Harvard (and apathy toward all things Princeton) just a joke, or a meaningful expression of school spirit? Should each individual value Yale for his or her own reasons, or is being an Eli a collective experience to be celebrated with common cheers and common enemies?

At its worst, school spirit can seem like a raw form of soulless nationalism. Witness the miraculous phenomenon of students agonizing about whether to attend Harvard or Yale, seeming to value each equally but instantaneously turning into card-carrying Crimson-haters as soon as they decide to go to New Haven.

If the suggestion that we’re somehow better for choosing to attend Yale is a joke, it’s overused and not particularly funny. If it’s serious, then it’s a repudiation of the critical-thinking skills Yale teaches us for four years. Individual experiences at various schools are radically different, and defining individuals by their colleges is virtually meaningless. Instead of trumpeting our superiority over other universities, we should cheer for the things we love most about Yale itself.

Another problem with some forms of school spirit arrives when people confuse veneration of Yale traditions with a continuous focus on all that has come before. While a common history unites us all, our Yale is very different from former Yales, and we should celebrate the new as well as the old. I was moved to see alumni write in with their fond memories of the Doodle, but we should remember that we have a whole host of memorable gathering places that are still around. Let’s hear the paeans to Yorkside, the odes to Koffee Too?-turned-Publick Cup. When we sing “Bright College Years,” let’s channel the song’s melodic nostalgia into passion for our lives, here and now, for our friends and for our Yale.

Because at its best, school spirit can bring us together in a quest to further our personal, intellectual and social growth. Yale is indeed unique: for the warmth and expertise of its professors, the intelligence and enthusiasm of its students, the depth and breadth of its extracurricular life. We will leave Yale as changed individuals, far more knowledgeable in terms of life experience as well as academic learning and better prepared for the challenges we may face in the years ahead.

But school spirit should not merely be accepted superficially. If our college years are so bright, what are they intended to accomplish? If the idea of a Yalie deserves solidarity and praise, let’s talk about the qualities our educations are intended to promote. Does Yale value tolerance? To the extent of tolerating offensive speech? Does Yale encourage the questioning or acceptance of authority? Egalitarianism or elitism? These are the real questions we have to resolve — not the burning issue of which anti-Harvard or -Princeton comment should be blazed across our Game T-shirts. Of course, we won’t all come out of Yale with the same perspective — and we shouldn’t. But if we are brought together for a shared purpose, we ought to search for the substance at the heart of our cheers. We should be serious about valuing friendship and Yale’s collegiality, and about lending support to our friends who chose to attend school elsewhere.

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