One hundred years ago, Owen Johnson’s novel “Stover at Yale” was published. An American version of “Tom Brown at Oxford,” the book recounts Dink Stover’s transition from the Lawrenceville School to Old Campus. As expected, his classmates, professors, and coaches groomed him into the Yale gentleman — a class leader, a football star and a member of Skull and Bones.
On the surface, we have come a long way since Dink Stover’s day. Yale admits women. Men don’t all rush out to the gridiron. LGBTQ students have institutional support. Yale College’s mission statement reflects these changes; it states: “The aim of [Yale’s] education is the cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity.” Yet, there is something old-fashioned about this mission statement. Note the words “our heritage to lead.”
Below the surface, you can still find plenty of heritage that represents Dink Stover’s Yale. Just look at the rituals of Mory’s, the formal dinners hosted by Grand Strategy, or the tuxedos worn by the Whiffenpoofs. At the “bourgeois” corner of York and Elm, two stores cater exclusively to men. (Though women can buy scarves at J. Press, I am told.) If you want further proof that this culture is worthy of conversation and perhaps light mockery, just take a look at Jack Schlossberg’s satiric column “How to be a gentleman,” which appeared in the March 2 issue of WEEKEND.
Although I try to resist the gentleman’s Old Yale, I am involuntarily sucked into it. Once, at a birthday party, I struck up a conversation with a sophomore that led to our discovery that we both went to school in the D.C. area.
“So you want to Episcopal? No way, I went to St. Albans! Do you know this kid Gift Maworere who played on the soccer team?” he asked.
I nodded my head, though I never felt comfortable with the old boy network, even if it’s merely a cocktail conversation. When people at Yale ask me whether I enjoyed boarding school, I usually shrug my shoulders, as if saying, “Hey, let’s talk about something else.” Yet upon arriving at Phelps Gate, I heeled the Yale Daily News, joined Grand Strategy and wondered about senior societies. Even though I am a girl and a feminist, I clung to the old ideals of being “a scholar and a gentleman.” Since then, I’ve wanted to shrug off that “Stover at Yale” identity.
My gender troubles started in high school. For many of us, during those adolescent years, we wrestled between developing our own identity and following the herd. I had an especially difficult time because I was an Asian and a scholarship kid at a Southern prep school that had only started coeducation in 1991. Although its faculty and administrators tried to “empower” girls, a smog of patriarchy pervaded the student culture.
“Weren’t students at your school all members of the Southern aristocracy?” a wisecrack once remarked. My smart-aleck friend is partly right. Just as the liberal elites of New York sent their kids to Dalton or Trinity, the not-so-liberal elites of Richmond, Charlotte, and Charleston sent theirs to Episcopal.
Many of my female classmates were expected to become latter-day Southern belles. They would go to decent — but not top-tier — universities, where they would join sororities. Afterwards, these polished young ladies would marry promising young gentlemen. They would work to support their husbands through law school, medical school, or business school, and once their husbands launched their careers, these women were expected to become homemakers/socialites/charity-fundraisers.
Since I didn’t have the pedigree or luxury to become a Southern belle, I resolved to become a “scholar and a gentleman.” I was competitive in ways girls were not expected to be. I took hard science classes, I was outspoken on political issues and I refused to wear high heels. Rumors spread that I was a lesbian, which I’m not.
Some of these old “masculine” habits followed me to Yale. I still wear boys’ clothing, an aggressive competitive strike occasionally surfaces in me (like the time I raced my Yale-PKU group to the top of Mount Tai to only realize I had left my friends behind), and at the Yale Daily News I often (playfully) threaten to punch our city editor. Perhaps my drive to join the “boys’ club” led me to study international security, a field that has historically been dominated by men.
But at Yale, I also learned to question the supposed virtues of manliness. During the first weeks of Directed Studies, my professors praised the heroism of Greek warriors and the glory they achieved in battle. Even Odysseus, who rejected the life of adventure for his hearth and home, marked his return to Ithaca with revenge killings. Why was such violence necessary? Even these days, I still question the books and articles I read in Grand Strategy (shocker). While I appreciate Machiavelli, Hobbes and Clausewitz as much as my classmates, I often wonder why the emphasis on the state’s security sometimes renders human rights or social justice unimportant.
Slowly, I came to realize I don’t have to be a gentleman to be a serious scholar. “Gentleman,” though meant to praise someone’s sophistication, is a constraining social construct. The original definition of “gentleman” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a man of gentle birth, or having the same heraldic status as those of gentle birth.” It gives off an air of elitism and demands a rigid social code. In short, it evokes the “wholesome,” heterosexual, bourgeois male from Stover’s days.
At its extreme, masculinity on college campuses can turn into misogyny, as seen in the DKE’s offensive chants on Old Campus in 2010 or the numerous reported and unreported sexual assaults and harassments that have occurred in our community. But the idealization of the “Yale gentleman” has more subtle consequences. It compels some of us to wear suits when we would rather wear sweatshirts (or hoodies); it drives some of us to high-power corporate jobs when we would rather go into public service. Inside the ivory tower, some of us cling to our elitism and forget the poverty and injustice felt by our New Haven neighbors. In short, some of us become self-important, looking at the world nonchalantly through a monocle like Eustace Tilley, the New Yorker mascot. Yale College’s mission states that its students should “lead and serve in every sphere of human activity.” Perhaps more emphasis should be pleased on the second verb.