Fifty-one weeks a year, Yalies are sociable, interesting, beneficent people, consistently sober and eternally interesting, happy about their residential colleges and busy inventing the next pizza, Frisbee or forward pass. So the tour guides tell me. But today, the Monday before The Game, things change. Nevermind that it is also Veterans Day. Today, enterprising students will set up in Woolsey Hall Rotunda and sell T-shirts in which cartoon Bulldogs engage cartoon Puritans in ways not easily recounted in a family newspaper. Then the Harvard bashing will really begin.
Of course, this mockery is not absent all year. The hissing of guest speakers who sojourned in Cantabrigia is cute. But the constant comparison to Harvard seems, well, desperate. I am not the first to point out that our antics often give the impression that we are justifying our own rejection from that other place. Nothing could be further from the truth — the students I know who were accepted to both H and Y are Elis now, and couldn’t be happier.
Our Cantab rivals see our mockery and laugh at our inferiority complex. Yet they get nervous when they realize that we are happy here. We are not better than Harvard at being Harvard, or at matching some form of impersonal international research university. We are happy because we are Yale. They can tell us that they have more undergraduates, or that their library collection is more voluminous, or even that their endowment is bigger, but who cares to measure?
Rather than try to make Yale into Ivy Research University No. 2, let us make it Yale.
Several long centuries after some Harvard professors decided their school wasn’t quite getting it right, we can move beyond “Harvard Sucks” as Yale’s defining motto. We have a better vocabulary and a more positive outlook. The point is not that “Harvard sucks.” The point is “Boola Boola.” Yale benefits by differentiating her product from that of other firms; if you prefer an athletic metaphor to an economic one, we need to play our game, not Harvard’s. Yale football will win by running up the middle and forcing turnovers; Yale College wins by — we don’t know, do we?
We disagree about the essence of Yale. For as much as we talk about the Yale experience — and if you don’t think we do, talk to some alumni — our only shared moments are the Halloween show, the Game and Toads — and I don’t go to Toads. (Neither does my editor.) We have common drunkenness but no common curriculum: no book we all must read, no class we all must take, no professor to whom we all must answer. Some of us love our residential college and others forget our master’s name. We are left with a general sense that college is a time to make very good friends through full-time commitments to extracurricular clubs and societies and, at our inevitable commencement, we are to make the world a better place somehow. “For God, for country and for Yale” has become for some world progress, for an important job and for Yale. And maybe for FOOT, or the YDN, or your debating society or your residential college.
This is a desperately vague slogan. And therein begins the disconnect between the undergraduates and the administration on the question of new residential colleges.
Yale students see 700 new kids, the re-centering of campus and the addition of dozens of new faculty as an assault on their Yale. Their Yale is a small community, built around the face-off between the library and the Comparative Literature Department. The administration sees an increase of the residential college system, the expansion of the Yale bubble up Science Hill and the admission of more qualified international and legacy applicants as a reinforcement of Yale’s essence. Their Yale is a demographic family making New Haven safer and the world a little less foreign. We, including the alumni, would all profit from an honest campus discussion about what is Yalensian. What do William Sloane Coffin, William Frank Buckley, and you and I have in common?
But let’s discuss after The Game. This week, put aside disagreements. Learn the fight songs. Talk about the Ivy championship and your club’s alumni event. Learn the words, if not the tune, to “Bright College Years.” Keep a white handkerchief in your pocket and sing that song on the streets, ironically if you must. And when you are in Woolsey Hall Rotunda this Veterans Day, about to buy a T-shirt of Handsome Dan marking his territory in Harvard Yard, look around at the names of your fellow Yalies etched upon the walls. There once were Yalies whose Yale education led them to conclusions about their responsibilities in the world. There are some things more important than beating Harvard: “for country and for Yale.”
Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.