The words could have been written yesterday.
“Extra-curricular activities have hindered academic interest due to the concept of the successful Yale man,” wrote the Aurelian Honor Society in their 1957 report entitled “Academic Indifference at Yale.” “If there is to be a revival of academic interest at Yale, then there will have to be a de-emphasis in the whole sphere of extracurricular activities.”
It was 1957. A group of 14 seniors forming the society was set to graduate. Just four years earlier, the men entered Yale to the words of Gaddis Smith ’54, then-chairman of the Yale Daily News.
“Above all Yale is a place full of danger … danger from the trap which leads the unwary majority of each class into a lazy college career of getting by and doing nothing, four wasted years,” Smith wrote.
Fifty years has changed much at Yale. The extracurricular offerings are more varied — no longer limited to the fraternities and sports teams of yore. Students are still free to spend hour after hour at clubs, sports and publications. Whether the value of the Yale experience lies more heavily in traditional academics or in outside-the-classroom endeavors is still grounds for disagreement.
“The philosophy has always been that part of an undergraduate education is interaction with a community of scholars,” explained Edgar Letriz, assistant dean of student affairs and the dean’s office’s liaison with student groups.
tipping the scales
Andre Schiffrin ’57 was one of the 14 seniors. He stood on the steps of Sterling Memorial Library — in the middle of a tiddlywinks tournament — when he turned down a Skull and Bones tap. He was not happy with the state of the University.
“When I arrived at Yale in September of 1953 … it was hardly an exciting place intellectually,” Schiffrin wrote later in his autobiography. “Many of the students were interested mostly in drinking and fraternity life, and they worked just hard enough to obtain George W. Bush-style ‘gentleman’s C’s.’ ”
Schiffrin’s report barely made a ripple within the administration.
“There were one or two professors who read the report who were very complimentary,” explained Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, who authored the report with Schiffrin before embarking on a storied career in Yale’s administration. “But beyond that, I don’t think many people read it.”
The reforms it suggested were sweeping. Freshmen would register extracurricular activities with counselors in order to avoid over-committal. Students whose marks dipped below “a proposed grade of 73” were to be summoned before the dean’s office for “advice concerning curtailment or elimination” of non-academic commitments.
But the recommendations were ignored. No effort was made then — as none is made now — to regulate the number of hours students spend each week in song, sport or society.
Last week the News asked students to tally the number of weekly hours they spend on extracurriculars. The bulk of the student body — some 63 percent — said they spend 10 to 30 hours each week in “structured, non-academic activities.”
Flip the picture, and the balance seems stable: Only 13 percent of students said they spent less than 10 hours on academic work outside of class each week. Most students — 69 percent — do between 10 and 30 hours of schoolwork outside of class per week.
The stereotype of the overcommitted Yale student constantly running from meeting to meeting, then, may not hold up. Nearly a third of students reported spending less than 10 hours per week participating in “structured, non-academic activities.”
That number does not surprise Letriz.
“You have those type of students,” Letriz said. “Who, for whatever personal reason, just don’t feel the desire to be actively engaged on a day-to-day basis.”
But for some, the scales are decidedly tipped. Seven percent of students reported spending over 30 hours a week on activities outside the realm of academics.
They are students like Bobby Abare ’09. He breaks thirty hours when you add up football meetings in the mornings, practice in the afternoons and games on the weekends.
Abare, this year’s football captain, is OK with that.
“From my point of view, I think it’s a great balance,” Abare said. “When I find something that interests me or drives my attention, I can commit myself to it that in the same way I commit myself on the football field.’
Years from now, Abare expects to remember the people he’s met at Yale — on and off the field. But he is quick to rebut the claim that extracurriculars and athletics are mutually exclusive.
“People who don’t play sports don’t really understand it,” he said. “It’s the same kind of learning experience. When you decide you enjoy something and want to commit yourself to it, you’re going to be successful at it.”
Diana Mellon ’09 joined the Yale Literary Magazine her freshman year. She signed up at the Lit’s booth during the freshman bazaar and kept coming back “because I saw space, if not flexibility, in the Lit’s structure.”
Now she edits the biannual, 172-year-old literary magazine with a team of 20 students. Over the next two weeks, the group will scrutinize each of the 197 submissions the Lit receives from writers, poets and artists on campus. Known as “selections,” the process involves hours of heated debate over several days before the Lit finally decides which pieces to publish. Academic concerns, Mellon said, tend to fall by the wayside.
“That feeling is ‘This is the most important thing I can do for my community and for myself at this moment, and I need to do it,’ ” she explained. “Anything else will have to wait right now.”
Like Abare, Mellon does not mind the sacrifice either.
“This feeling that I’m having now — this is what I came to Yale to find.”
It is no secret that balancing acts are encouraged. Yale viewbooks from decades past depict an institution that sold itself on more than its sterling academic reputation.
“The main purpose to which the principal resources of the University are directed is to stretch the mind, to sharpen the intellect,” reads a passage from a 1974 admissions-office bulletin. “At the same time, college life would be incomplete if it did not challenge and reward participation in life and work and thought beyond the curriculum.”
A pamphlet from 1981 is even more explicit.
“Between classes, which take up 15 hours each week for most freshmen, an endless variety of attractive options competes with a relatively heavy workload and demanding reading assignments,” it reads. “One of the lessons this tempting diversity provides is how to make choices, how to live richly in competing worlds.”
And, current Yale administrators would argue, to tie the two worlds together. Joe Gordon, the acting dean of Yale College, said he believes extracurricular activities “extend and test” lessons learned in the classroom, while also teaching students valuable time-management skills.
Letriz agreed, but acknowledged that some students can dive too deeply into non-academic work.
“That’s always a worry and a concern,” he said. “You’ll always have the undergraduates who have to take a leave of absence because they’ve lost sight of their primary reason for being here: their education.”
For the most part, faculty agree with Gordon’s assessment, though some admit it is frustrating when students beg off papers or midterms to attend conferences, practices or rallies. When students err on the side of engaging too heavily in their non-academic lives, history of art professor Edward Cooke ’77 said they run the risk of missing “life here at school.”
In college, assistant professor Shameem Black ’97 was “not a person who spent an enormous amount of time doing structured things.” She said she valued unstructured time: lingering over a meal in the Trumbull dining hall or chatting with a roommate. Academics meant much to Black as a college student. But she said she understands the draw non-academic activities hold for students.
“Extracurriculars should be, in some ways, extracurricular,” she said. “But when you’re coming into college after 12 years of school, it makes perfect sense that what can feel fresh and exciting is something that is outside the classroom.”
Still, Black urged students to take advantage of what they will lose after Commencement: an academic community.
“In some ways, the extracurricular activities resemble the activities that students are going to be doing for the rest of their lives,” she said. “It’s the coursework that’s the anomaly. Ten, 15 years down the road, they’re going to look back and say, ‘This is what I don’t have in my life.’ ”
The two do not always represent diverging paths. Asked which pursuit — academic or extracurricular — he emphasized in college, English professor Langdon Hammer ’80 said it was difficult at times to see where one began and the other ended.
“Yale was terribly exciting for someone interested in literature and art and philosophy,” Hammer explained. “Because so many people shared those interests, we carried them out of the classroom when we went to a poetry reading or a party or an opening. Then, we brought those experiences back into the classroom again the next day.”
And it is not just Yale — sort of.
“I don’t know of anyone at Harvard who doesn’t have at least one extracurricular thing going on,” Harvard sophomore Michael Puopolo said.
Yale’s is certainly not the only campus grappling with the question of which pursuits are more important. Several Harvard and Princeton students interviewed said their classmates juggled as many competing commitments as Elis.
Hannah Wilson is a Princeton sophomore who splits her time between stage managing a student-produced play, acting in another, and singing a cappella. Wilson said she turns in class assignments on time, but acknowledges that “the amount of work I do is not near as much as I should.”
“I feel like this is what I’m going to remember about college more than anything else,” she said. “Doing what I love with the people who are going to be friends for the rest of my life. That’s more important to me than doing the 400 pages of politics reading due tomorrow morning.”
Yale boasts roughly one registered student group for every 15 students. At Harvard, the number is 17; Princeton clocks in at 19. But the ratio belies certain school’s strengths in one area and weaknesses in another — one may prove receptive to arts students, another to journalists — and so generalized numbers are of little use in determining whether Yale’s extracurricular environment trumps that of her sister schools.
For example, Yale and Princeton boast 14 a cappella groups each. Harvard has a few less. On the other hand, the Crimson arguably have the best pre-business clime for undergraduates. The Harvard dean’s office lists five separate clubs for potential investment bankers, traders or realtors.
Still, Keith Berman, president of the college counseling firm Options for College, thinks the New Haven campus generally bends stronger to the non-academic than other Ivy League schools. Berman said he thinks Harvard and Princeton are defined by their emphasis on undergraduates’ intellectual experience. Harvard, Berman said, prides itself on the interaction between graduate and undergraduate students. Princeton does the best job of the three in forcing its students to produce publishable research during their time as undergraduates.
“But at Yale, it’s the focus on the actual life of the undergraduate that characterizes it,” Berman said, referring to the University’s emphasis on education outside the classroom. “That’s the major point of differentiation.”
Maybe that is a good thing. Perhaps the Aurelian Society’s recommendations would have limited the intellectual growth of students. To be sure, the extracurricular environment today is far healthier than in 1957.
But maybe they were right. Maybe, as they wrote, “Yale should be primarily concerned with those activities which are best performed by a university.”
The average student falls somewhere in the gray area between the two extremes. Only one thing is clear — that the ongoing conflict between the two will continue to shape the concept of a Yale education.
“No other institution in the world takes Yale’s place when it comes to undergraduate organizations in the context of the close ties that remain between Yale College and these groups,” Letriz said. “Our very fortune, in that respect, creates the misfortune that some of these students won’t have the skills or maturity to balance their schedules with their co-curricular activities.”
At the end of the day, it is a choice. A choice between class and practice — between cramming and sitting with friends in a quiet college courtyard. Choices that may have evolved over the decades, but which, at their root, ask the same question.