Three hundred and nine years ago today, the General Assembly of Connecticut approved “An Act for Liberty to Erect a Collegiate School,” which granted a group of Puritan clergymen £120 a year to establish and maintain a school for ministers. Yale’s earliest incarnation was not wholly theological — the act vowed to educate men “for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State.” Yet the men who attended all came for the same reason: strictly religious education.
Yale remained an orthodox fortress for the next century. “Pleasure reading,” that of texts not written in Latin or Greek, was discouraged. Extracurriculars were nonexistent. Jeremiah Day, who served as Yale’s president in the early 1800s, was the first to champion the idea of liberal arts; chemistry, English grammar, geography and political science were added to the curriculum during his tenure.
In the 100 years that followed, Yale expanded and diversified its raison d’être, if not its student body. The school participated in three major wars, built a Gothic campus and scientific school, and dismantled compulsory chapel. Clubs and teams flourished at the expense of academics: Phi Beta Kappa disappeared in 1871 and was replaced by a hardy athletic culture. Yale Men — robust, pipe-smoking fellows from good New England families (at worst, the Chicago suburbs) — went on to become soldiers, performers, businessmen and politicians.
But in the 1960s, President Kingman Brewster and the newly appointed Dean of Admission Inky Clark Jr. (yes, Inky) opened Old Yale to new students. Once an all-male, all-WASP institution, Yale lurched towards meritocracy. The ethnic and religious backgrounds of Yale students slowly broadened, and as University finances allowed, so too did their economic circumstances. An intellectual, academic atmosphere returned.
Today, Yalies are defined in large part by how we are different, not how we are similar. It is this diversity of thought and experience that makes Yale such a vibrant place. The residential colleges prevent self-segregation, and a staggeringly varied and talented student body facilitates as lush a diffusion of ideas the school has ever seen. We come for different reasons, experience Yale in different ways and leave for different destinations.
But what keeps us together? The handful of ministers who came here in 1710 had it easy: they wore the same clothes, took the same classes and pursued the same vocation. The Yalies of 1810 had more academic freedom, but all were humanities-inclined and came to Yale primarily to study. The Class of 1910 shared the same rowing shells, secret societies and side parts.
We have no such obvious, all-encompassing center tent. During World War II, many a Yale officer found himself stranded in a bombed-out backwater, and would belt out a chorus of “The Whiffenpoof Song” to pass the time. It was not uncommon for another man to join him, and legends persist of Morocco bars suddenly filled with “little black sheep” who, though they might never have met on campus, recognized the same communal memory of Mother Yale, immortalized in song. Few Yalies today know those lyrics, and a random classmate met outside New Haven might share nothing but an identical degree. Although the “Yale type” has been rightfully liquefied, a collective Yale identity can and should be preserved.
So celebrate our differences — they are what distinguish us from our easily stereotyped forebears — but do not neglect to value that which we share. Yale’s traditions exist not only to connect us to the past but also to connect us to one another. None of these practices are ours by birthright; we adopt them upon arrival, regardless of socioeconomic background, major, legacy status, religion or race. Embrace bladderball. Go to football games. Observe Tap Night and avoid the millstones. Eat (and drink, finally) at Mory’s. In an era where by nature we all have less in common, these practices are more important than ever for their ability to bring us together. And next time someone starts singing a Yale song, join them.
Riley Ford is a senior in Saybrook College.