Kemper: The rise of junior societies

Kemper Fi

‘CANDIDATE. TRANSLATE!” The charge booms out in Latin to a hapless sophomore huddled on the ground. A brazier of burning coals dominates his blurred vision. He has just been seized from the cellar by two burly football players, rushed upstairs and thrown on the hard wood floor, flanked by the dim shapes of groaning black-gowned and hooded figures. He recites, but the hisses and howls drown out his voice. “Candidate,” the voice growls out again. “You have failed.” His porters seize him once again, running him down three flights of stone steps, allowing him to hit every fifth step, and throw him out on the street.

Junior societies used to be a de rigueur part of the Yale experience. They were so ingrained in the culture, in fact, that the man giving the orders in the scene above — which supposedly took place in the 1910s — was rumored to be the dean of the college. For the most part, the societies died off in the 1930s. They are back.

Today there are at least 10 purely junior societies on this campus, including in their ranks up to 250 juniors. Each year a larger portion of the sophomore class is swept up in the interview process, and on Sunday they will hold their own tap night, a sometimes-riotous affair, which last year landed five sophomores in the hospital: one with a brain contusion, another with a broken face, and still another who remained in a sling weeks later.

Their predecessors were nominally fraternities, but accepted only juniors and acted like societies. Delta Kappa Epsilon, the only one that survived, used to have an old style tomb, complete with a faceless front wall. It was torn down for the construction of Sterling Memorial Library, but we encounter the architectural legacy of the others every day. The tomb of Alpha Delta Phi, whose rising seniors founded Scroll and Key in 1842 (when they were eschewed by Skull and Bones), is now the Institute of Sacred Music on Hillhouse Avenue. The row of oversized medieval cottages between York and Park streets behind Pierson College came from a lavish society building spree in the 1920s.

Junior societies today certainly lack the physical presence, not to mention the alumni base, of their predecessors and senior counterparts.

Today’s junior societies are purely social. There are advantages to this system. So much of Yale’s social life is bound up in activities that sometimes it can be difficult to make friends outside of your sport or extracurricular of choice. Ideally, junior societies create a space for socializing free of any nominal purpose or activity. Students from across the fragmented Yale experience can come together and enjoy each other’s company and perspectives. There is also an undeniable thrill with doing something that is ostensibly secret.

Furthermore, they prepare students for a world filled with more clubs. Just two weeks ago The New York Times ran an article about the Belizean Grove — a club for high-powered women formed as a counterweight to the many clubs for high-powered men, such as the Bohemian Grove. Though to be fair, our junior societies are much less ambitious, focusing on having a good time and adopting a tongue-in-cheek attitude. Read, for instance, the Wikipedia page for Ice & Stim, an all-male junior society.

There are, however, some dangers that come with the rejuvenation of junior societies. Over time, loyalty to the organizations and the desire to join them can breed conformity. Together with sophomore and even freshmen societies, the old ones formed a chain of social promotion that placed societies at the center of Yale life. It was what one Yale historian called a “four-decker sandwich of delights spiced with mystery and fear.” The University stamped it out. In the 1880s, the administration forced the freshmen societies to disband. In 1900, it unilaterally banned the sophomore societies. It was the beginning of a proactive set of policies that, by the end of the Great Depression and the completion of the residential colleges, had effectively wiped out all but the senior societies.

At least seven new junior societies have formed in the last three years alone. As a larger crop of sophomores are interviewed, the rejected ones form still more societies, creating a snowball effect. A significant part of Yale’s student body is making a collective decision to make society a two-year experience instead of just a capstone experience, and it seems no one has taken a step back and thought about whether or not this is something we want.

So the News or Herald should investigate this phenomenon to see how the class feels about it. Sometimes we forget that we are not just the creations but also the creators of our circumstances. Let us think a little about what kind of social scene we are creating.

Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.

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