At the beginning of our freshman year, we are herded into Woolsey Hall for convocation. At the end of the ceremony, we are asked to sing “Bright College Years” and are told to wave white handkerchiefs in an age-old ritual. For many us, this is the beginning and the end of our engagement with the history of Yale.
This campus, though, is dripping with history. Almost every street and building has decades, if not centuries, of memories and traditions associated with it. The repercussions of decisions made in the 18th 19th and 20th centuries still affect the University in meaningful ways today.
But at the same time, Yale, or at least the student body, has a shockingly fleeting institutional memory. Few undergraduates, myself included, can give more than the haziest sketch of the founding of the College. The same is true for the development of the residential college system. Or the introduction of coeducation. Or the growth of athletics and the varied social organizations on campus. These, and a myriad of other institutions, traditions and sensibilities, come to us as freshmen already fully formed. Far too often we simply accept their existence and leave senior year as ignorant of their origins as when we came in.
Our collective ignorance is unfortunate because of the benefits that can come from a richer understanding. It is unfortunate, though true, that the student body is not as unified as it once was. Students have balkanized into their different extracurriculars and interests — the sense of an overarching community is dwindling. This trend will only continue with the creation of new residential colleges.
In order to rebuild our community, we need a sense of shared history. Yale’s history could be a real source of pride, one that binds the campus together. We can bring to life the seemingly distant past with stories — tales of traditions like class football games and campus institutions like the Yale Fence that once stood on Old Campus. We are part of a fabric, and knowing the pattern that comes before gives our own more meaning.
Another benefit is the sense of ownership that history provides. Yale extends far beyond the few short years any of us will spend on this campus, and in order to wrap our minds around it we must take a view larger than that of an undergraduate tenure. Perhaps if we were more connected to our past, we would see less student apathy toward University issues. It is difficult to form an opinion on the evolving administration or the homogenization of the colleges if one does not know what came before and how it changed. History can serve as a teacher, highlighting previous missteps while also emphasizing what is fundamental to the University.
The best way to develop this sense of history is a tricky question.
A good place to start might be sending some kind of packet to incoming freshmen. Orientation is packed enough as it is, but I know I would have devoured a broad history of Yale in the summer leading up to my freshman year. As it stands now, the administration seems almost embarrassed by its history, with the aforementioned singing of “Bright College Years” being one of few public engagements with it. Of course, a history crafted by the administration is not ideal, but it might serve as a good starting place, a way to pique further interest.
Ultimately, though, we need a change in attitude. We need to take an active interest in this place we call home. Ignorance of Yale’s past should not be a badge of pride, as it is in some circles. If we want to take ownership, if we want to effect change, if we want to get the most possible out of our short time here, we need to come from a place of knowledge.
Freshmen, educate yourselves about the College and the University. Learn what it has represented through time and consider what you would like it to become. Upperclassmen, take the time to learn about how the clubs, groups and organizations to which you have devoted so much time came into being. Doing so will make your time there much more fulfilling and will almost certainly make your job easier. Yale is an incredible place. It would be a shame to miss out because we focused only on our four, short years.
Isa Qasim is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.