At the turn of the 18th century, Yale was founded to stop a Harvard-based “social network” from diverting the holy Puritan mission toward one that emphasized worldly “works” and wealth in a society connected, but flattened, by commerce.
The world isn’t flat, Yale’s founders insisted. It has abysses, and students need a faith that can plumb them: one that can defy worldly power in the name of a Higher one. Harvard was losing that faith and turning society into a slippery swamp of contracts and deals. Yale, sanctimonious and inward-turning, produced Jonathan Edwards 1720, Nathan Hale 1773 and other dissenters, up through Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau ’70, Howard Dean ’71 and, maybe, you.
It was always a minority strain, though, because too much of Yale was always too much like Harvard: The worldly self-dealing that the film the “The Social Network” claims divided Harvard’s Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin also divided Yale’s Henry R. Luce ’20 and Briton Hadden ’20. These two News editors invented Time, a “new media” breakthrough on the scale of Facebook.
According to biographer Isaiah Wilner ’00 in “The Man Time Forgot,” Luce pushed Hadden aside. He went on to herald “The American Century” in Time, but had to be shamed into funding the construction of the News’ Briton Hadden Memorial Building — just as Zuckerberg may have been shamed by “The Social Network” into donating $100 million to Newark, N.J., schools.
Both stories carry the Puritan warning that raw ambition, stoked by perverse economic pressures, erodes friendship and public trust. Yet friendship and trust still mattered at Luce’s and Hadden’s Yale. As Wilner puts it, “Though the desire for fame and power ran strong in Luce, so did a strong sense of morality. […T]he essence of a man’s character is tested only when it conflicts with his own self-interest. Luce failed that test [by wronging Hadden], and he did not feel right about it.”
The drive for fame and power also troubled a News editorialist in 1955, during the Cold War, as he pondered another Yalie’s advice on the Opinion page. “The man who clocks his business mind out with his time card at night should not enter the sales end of the brokerage business,” his classmate argued. “You have to eat, drink, play and perhaps even more, with your customers without seeming commercial about it.”
“Ouch!” the editorial responded. “Thank God for President [A. Whitney] Griswold’s ‘one-man-band’ for the liberal arts.” Griswold was crusading for liberal education, against both Communism and McCarthyism, to strengthen what the News called “a higher type of friendship essential to life.” If the West couldn’t win by reasserting “values of friendship other than commercial ones,” the editorial asked, “Who are we to call the kettle black?” The editorial’s title? “Marx Invades Wall Street.”
Yale’s emphasis on genuine, uncommercial friendship continued to resonate. “To a remarkable extent this place has detected and rejected those who wear the colors of high purpose falsely,” President Kingman Brewster Jr. ’41 told my entering freshman class in 1965. “This is done not by an administrative edict … but by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility… deep in our origins.”
A Harvard smarty might dismiss this as a snob’s boast about an in-crowd. But Brewster, a descendant of Puritans, really wanted Yalies to plumb abysses in order to know true leaders from false.
So Yale struggled for three centuries, in Calvinist and classical ways, to balance humanist Truth-seeking with republican Power-wielding. That “balance” determines how we live, invest and wage wars.
But now, things are different. Yale teaches that the world is flat, thanks to globalized engines of wealth creation, driven by rational investors and consumers and guided by grand strategists. “One thing the Cold War did accomplish was to vindicate democracy and capitalism,” wrote professor John Lewis Gaddis in 1999. “These institutions are now sufficiently deeply rooted that we can view the future with confidence. The only people who doubt this reality lack the power to do anything about it.”
Many a lecture and News column chirps this good news, along with Yale’s characteristically elegant apercus, self-deprecating humor and tips on how to do well by doing good. Isn’t that what liberal education is for? A flat world may have valleys, but abysses? Please. We’re taking neo-liberalism to Singapore, even the Moon!
But Yale’s economic-determinist confidence in materialism would horrify our founders, Adam Smith and even Marx, whose materialism has indeed invaded Wall Street and “The Social Network.” The real “social network” is collapsing along with millions of American homes and jobs amid road rage; lethal store-opening rampages; extreme or “cage” fighting; TV shows that gloat over others’ humiliation; rising crime in New Haven; and rising Christine O’Donnells and Linda McMahons, who bypass Americans’ brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera, wallets and post-republican despair.
Yale’s founders and the 1955 News editorialist are warning those who can hear them that this can’t last and that, when an emperor has no clothes, we need enough faith to say so and to stop giving him false drapery. Fortunately, Yale has a long tradition of Truth-telling from which to draw.
Jim Sleeper ’69 is a lecturer in political science and teaches the seminar “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”