Casino Night, that annual role-playing spectacular, is tomorrow. Hundreds of Yalies will put on our best renditions of old-world gentry as we gamble and dance the night away. It is a fun occasion — and also a small component of our training in navigating part of the elite world. The exemplars of banter, dress and expression on display at Casino Night are opportunities for us to learn to be more effective elites. But the elite world is changing, and Yale is falling behind the times — which may not be so terrible.
Allow me to explain myself. Elites are defined by their disproportionate access to the levers of power. These levers have traditionally been parts of the Old Boys Club: high-ranking government officials like both Presidents Bush, captains of industry like Bass and Harkness, and thought leaders like Samuel Morse and Ben Silliman. Successfully navigating their context required walking a certain walk and talking a certain talk: mastering cocktail party chatter, knowing to match one’s belt and one’s shoes, and a hundred other pieces of trivial nonsense.
Yale supports numerous traditions and institutions devoted to teaching us the manners of old-school elitism. The existence of exclusive organizations like secret societies, the Elizabethan Club and the Chai Society exert a pull on the overall culture, and inclusive events like wine tastings, master’s teas, and grand holiday dinners finish the job. Elis generally graduate with a sense of how to navigate interactions with the guardians of the traditional levers of power.
Yet the world has changed since the 1940s, and the Yale Club can no longer be considered the epicenter of our universe. America’s meritocracy has given rise to a new generation of entrepreneurs, politicians and intellectuals. Geeks have founded Microsoft and Google, employing tens of thousands of people and creating billions of dollars of new wealth. We have just elected a president whose mother took food stamps. It is harder to get by simply on class skills; actual ability counts too.
One particular ability has become essential to navigating the elite world: fluency with data. Major decisions, both political and economic, are increasingly based on interpretations of spreadsheets. The ability to quickly understand and manipulate aggregated data is now essential to successful navigation of swaths of the elite world.
As a liberal arts institution, Yale has traditionally shied away from teaching practical numerical fluency. In recent years, particularly with the introduction of the QR requirement, we have taken halfhearted steps toward statistical literacy, but the requirement is sufficiently nebulous that one can easily graduate Yale without ever having comfortably handled aggregated data.
When it comes to elitism, the requisite abilities are substantially changing, but our training is not. We will still be hooked into strong alumni networks, but most the next generation of Yalies may find themselves outside the elite core of the new world order.
The new elite is defined by its ability to navigate a range of contexts, from cocktails at Yale to cockfights in Thailand, from Best Buy to the blogosphere and from Eliot to Excel. If Yale is to continue producing global leaders, it must take stock of the world and itself. Elis must learn how to navigate more worlds than ever before.
This analysis begs the question: would fewer Eli elites be such a terrible thing? Is the world better off because Yale has traditionally given us disproportionate access to the levers of power? It is an uncomfortable question to ask. We are emerging from eight disastrous years of a Yalie president whose early political successes were made possible by his family- and Yale-bestowed access to the levers of power.
What lessons can we learn? Perhaps that power is dangerous when unaccompanied by a sense of responsibility and humility. We should recommit to that spirit of humility and responsibility that vindicates the unbelievable privilege we here enjoy. Entitled elites are risky. They gamble with our country.
Tomorrow evening we will be gambling with raffle tickets. We will wear dapper suits and evening gowns. We will politely greet acquaintances and chat with varied friends. There is nothing wrong with this. It is good fun. But as you roll the dice and ponder the odds, reflect for a moment about how you are learning to see the world and yourself, a new member of the old elite.
Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stile College.