I was enjoying one of the most old blue of Yale traditions two nights ago, when Cole Porter’s name tag appeared in the YSO Halloween Show. “Who is that?” the kid behind me asked.
The question made me wonder how much of our Yale history has been lost. He also asked what Vassar had to do with Yale. I was astounded by his ignorance. Maybe it’s time that we all take Yale & America.
Today we celebrate Elihu Day. We commemorate the namesake of our university and, more broadly, a day we should take to reflect on our forebears, those who studied, sang and worked where we do now. We should find it important to look back on the history of this place, our Yale.
We have some vague notions of figures after which our residential colleges were named, like Ezra Stiles and Jonathan Edwards. The familiar characters of 20th century Yale make the occasional appearance at the YSO show and in our history courses; the Henry Luces and the Elia Kazans receive the occasional nod. But we know very little about the great number of Yalies who formed our society and to whom we owe much of our modern world.
We should start with Elihu Yale, the man who made a donation 293 years ago to jump-start the university. Yale was born in America, travelled across the British Empire from Africa to India and eventually settled down in London. He was one of the earliest proponents of the globalizing world.
In today’s vastly more global society, the goals of our university parallel those of Elihu Yale three centuries ago. The administration has made it a priority to give students ample opportunities for international immersion. Yalies in the last decade have studied abroad in unprecedented numbers, experiences that will make them more globally conscious.
Yale’s greatness is tied to the culture of donors that have helped uphold its status as a center of liberal arts and scientific breakthroughs. The old School of Fine Arts, Street Hall, which is currently under construction, was the first higher education fine arts school in the country — the product of a donation in the 19th century. The residential colleges that have come to define our university at its very core were funded by the Harkness family in 1930.
But these large scale projects started by Yale greats can only be maintained with the support of generations of Yalies. We would not find ourselves at a Yale with such a bounty of resources had it not been for that initial donation nearly three centuries ago.
This year, Yale concluded a campaign to continue investing in its greatest asset: the student body. The close to $3.9 billion raised over the last five years will go towards building the new residential colleges, renovating Yale art facilities and lessening the financial burden of a Yale education. But if we hope to continue our mission, to become a truly global university, we must garner that same support in the future. Giving back to Yale after graduation is an important commitment, one that we made with our fellow Yalies on the first days we walked across Phelps gate onto Old Campus in the fall of freshman year.
Today, we honor our first benefactor — as well as the countless others who have contributed to make Yale what it is today — in the hope that we can do the same for future Yalies. Thankfully, Yale alumni continue to fervently support their alma mater regardless of its changing nature. They believe in a greater Yale community, one that encompasses members of the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and us.
Next time you step into a building, you should take a moment to reflect on the person that building is named after. You might discover that he or she was the first to discover the uses of petroleum or the inventor of the telegraph. For better or for worse, the John C . Calhouns and Hiram Binghams are a part of our institutional memory — one that we all have the opportunity to expand upon.