For most of us, the closing of Mory’s over winter break was no big deal. A cappella lovers and a few other Temple Bar diehards were distraught to learn the news, but few Yalies’ daily routines were disturbed by the disappearance of Mory’s from the school’s culinary scene.
Mory’s may not be gone forever: It’s possible that some alumni might scrape together the money Mory’s needs to reopen. But there’s good reason to be skeptical about the future of an institution that depends on a diminishing coterie of traditionalist Yalies.
But is that a problem? Yale hasn’t stopped changing since its founding. (If it hadn’t, we’d still have all our classes in Abraham Pierson’s living room.) The hundreds of classes of Yale students have each added a new layer of history and tradition to the school, creating a culture found nowhere else.
A restaurant’s closing isn’t enough to change this tradition — Yale is still Yale — but it can lead us to think about the role Yale’s history and tradition should play in our lives today.
Yale is a world unto itself, not because we’ve withdrawn from the world into some isolated ivory tower, but because of its unique heritage, in which we’re privileged to take part. But how much of this heritage do we really appreciate? A great public event like last month’s Whiffenpoof Centennial makes elements of Yale’s tradition impossible to ignore, but most of Yale’s unique heritage seems to lie unnoticed and unmissed.
Most Yale students can’t sing more than a few bars of “Bright College Years,” and hardly anyone can explain why the path between Jonathan Edwards and Branford is called “Library Walk.” These things are insignificant in themselves — we have more important things to learn at Yale than old songs and traditions — but together they contribute to the character of our school.
If Yale University is nothing more than a tool to put knowledge into our heads, or a way station on the road to fame and fortune, or an opportunity to drink and party before assuming adult responsibilities, then there’s no reason we should bother to study its quirks and traditions. But if Yale is a community and a culture, if we are not just students at Yale but Yale men and women, then this school’s past is our past as well.
This is not a question of nostalgia or a reactionary desire to return to the past any more than it is nostalgic or reactionary for an American to know the words to the national anthem or to study the early history of his or her country. Our schools teach these things because they are assumed to be an element of citizenship, knowledge that anyone with allegiance to the United States ought to have.
In the same vein, the University would do well to work on promoting “college citizenship.” Freshmen arriving on Old Campus learn the names of their dorms; why shouldn’t they learn who their dorms were named for? The campus environment we enjoy today is the result of a confluence of people and events stretching back centuries, and if the University wants to promote a distinctive Yale community, it ought to encourage student interest in the history and heritage of the school.
If Yale is more than a group of people who happen to live and work together, building community requires more than ice-breaking events. Substantive communities need to be united by something their members hold in common, and in a place as diverse as Yale, whose members represent a great diversity of interests and backgrounds, what can unite us better than love for the place we all call home?
Our campus is full of monuments to what past classes of Yalies have loved about this place — a plaque in a Durfee entryway immortalizes the “Long Cheer,” and another on the side of Bingham celebrates the Old College Fence as gentis cunabula nostrae — the cradle of our people.
For me, it’s wonderful to think that Yale unites us with past students as a “people.” But if we are a people, if we, despite the years and differences between us, are continuators of the legacy of the earliest Yalies, we owe it to ourselves to know something about where we came from.
Kevin Gallagher is a sophomore in Pierson College.