STERN: Societies offend me

A Stern Perspective

A lot gets written about senior societies at Yale. A lot. There have been articles, exposés, entire books devoted to these extracurricular activities. Every year, there are (it feels like) dozens of columns that grace the pages of the News, defending or critiquing some part of the “tap” process. Now I’m part of that trend. Oh well. Much has been written about the process but little has been written about the societies themselves. Here goes.

scott_stern_headshot_peter_tianSocieties offend me. They are the products of an insidious and juvenile popularity contest that creates unnecessary stress during an already stressful time. Societies are a problem.

Full disclosure: I received exactly one fancy little envelope under my door, with my name written in spiky ink on the front and the letter closed with a pretentious wax seal. I threw it away without looking inside. That was the extent of my exposure to the society tap process.

Nonetheless, watching my friends sweat or pretend to shrug off this entire process, I felt moved to write a column about senior societies.

A little background: The tap process begins in the second semester of some Yalies’ junior years, and it extends until a couple weeks from now. It begins with a letter under the door, and it ends with relieved students running around in costumes — because nothing is more secret than loud, conspicuous inductions.

Many who defend senior societies claim that they are a way for people to get to know a great group of kids to whom they had not been previously exposed. They are just a way to make new friends, to meet new people. Yet if this were in fact the case, surely societies could just pick kids randomly — literally, names out of a hat. If the point were just meeting new people, why the long, drawn-out, overly dramatic tap process? Why the interviews? Why the stupid little tasks? (“Meet here at 11:03, not before, not after.”) Why the constant judgment?

Perhaps the interviews and prescreening are merely meant to pick a group of people who will get along? But no — if that were the case, surely the interview questions and pre-tapping tasks would not be so personal, so invasive, so humiliating. Furthermore, should friendships really be engineered? Shouldn’t friendships be organic, formed from some silly accident or chance encounter, remembered years later in a fit of nostalgia? Perhaps that is sentimental. Perhaps friendships should instead be chosen by a panel of college seniors who secretly-not-so-secretly judge your merit.

Yes, prospective society members are evaluated on the basis of whom they know and how worthy some seniors judge them to be. There is a distinct and well-known hierarchy of these societies, and everyone is aware of which ones are on top. Those societies — whose new members’ names are splashed breathlessly online by Yale publications — always seem to consist of presidents of organizations, famous athletes or artists and the rich and prominent. They were judged to be the “best” at Yale. The kids in the next tier of societies were judged to be pretty good as well.

The friendships people form in these societies are thus founded on the basis of “we are all good enough for each other.” Society members have been judged, found worthy, and only then can they sit around in a dark room together and tell drawn-out, self-involved memoirs. These friendships are predicated on exclusivity, on networking, on condescension.

Of course, some people form wonderful, lasting friendships through societies. But that is not justification for their degree of exclusivity and outright meanness. People form wonderful friendships on FOOT trips and with roommates — which sort kids in an essentially random manner. There are a lot of friendly people on campus.

As to the objection that, well, Yale’s selection process is exclusive too — that is absolutely true. Yet just because we necessarily accept some degree of exclusivity to get in here does not mean that we then passively accept all subsequent exclusive processes. Yale is, for the most part, unlike senior societies. Yale wants to pick the best and the brightest in order to foster a thriving intellectual environment, not in order to foster friendships. Friendships happen, and they will happen no matter which people are chosen, but the academic ambiance thing is key.

Besides, imagine if the Yale application process rested on gossip and intimidation and furtive envelopes slipped beneath doors summoning prospective students to stilted interviews.

Societies are a massive time commitment. They cost hundreds of dollars. They are pretentious. They are not secret. But, worst of all, they are mean-spirited. They form friendships only among those who are deemed “good enough” to get in.

Scott Stern is a junior in Branford College. His columns run on Wednesdays. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu .

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