It’s taboo to talk about society. It’s not taboo to complain about it, or fetishize it, but it is taboo to ask questions about its impact on our community. What do societies do?
Senior societies are no longer secret. A hundred years ago, when Yalies were few and homogenous and tap only affected a couple dozen people, societies may have been secret. Today, they’re less secret than private. We feel we must respect their privacy, but their impact is public and warrants public scrutiny. Taboo has led to self-censorship, which has allowed gossip to usurp consensus. Our appraisals of society are semi-informed, much like their appraisals of prospective members.
A few numbers wouldn’t hurt. How many hours is the time commitment? How many society members are on financial aid? How many seniors quit? Each society is different, but there must be trends.
The Yale Daily News offers little insight. Since 2007, the paper has published just over 20 society columns — mostly seniors writing from hindsight’s safety. But the paper’s reporting has been sparse. On the News’ website, I found 21 articles between 2001 and 2015. Five were bulletins about tap night, and three were longer than 1,000 words. If there are other articles, they’re hard to find.
Virtually every year, News editors make it onto the list of “Big Three Taps,” but to see who, you have to check Rumpus or the Herald. In a homage to Hemingway, what the News leaves out reveals more than what it writes. Yale’s other publications could also aim higher with their reporting on society, but none of them has as big a staff, as wide a circulation or as longstanding a conflict of interest.
We need some news. For more than a decade we haven’t been getting much, but the current News board’s tenure is encouraging. Their editorials call for institutional accountability. The investigation “Enough Alcohol to Call it Rape?” balanced privacy and public interest. I hope they pursue and publish stories about society that previous boards did not — about their demographics, their influence on our choices. The News has the power to start conversations or to skirt them.
The Yale administration is also reticent about society. Which is odd. If this spring is like last spring, 400 juniors will be tapped, and hundreds more will have gone letter-less or interviewed to no avail. I cannot think of a student activity that both affects such a wide swath of students and requires such a large time commitment. The administration surely has something to say.
The incoherence of the administration’s stance is well captured by an email Dean Gentry sent out before tap night last year, copied and pasted from his email the year before. He included a 56-word addendum on the perils of blindfolding. It’s not thorough policy, but at least it’s consistent. Don’t haze, be safe, have fun. “This is just one of hundreds of opportunities to participate in extracurricular life at Yale,” he wrote.
Society doesn’t get a shout-out in any admissions materials or a spot at the freshman bazaar. There aren’t any panels and there’s no way to sign up. It’s an important part of student life, but it’s not an extracurricular. If anything, it’s extra-extracurricular.
Maybe the administration avoids talking about society because any discussion is easy to caricature. “Look at the elitist institution worrying about its elitist institution.” I hope that’s not why. Its silence on the issue just reinforces the notion that society is something exceptional and something we shouldn’t talk about.
We need to find the place between fetish and taboo. Only then will juniors be able to determine if all the time and emotion we expend worrying about society are well spent. Only then will we be able to decide if it’s worth joining one.
Who better to lead this discussion than University President Peter Salovey? His career is defined by his stewardship of Yale and his research is in emotional intelligence, including how emotions govern our response to difficult situations. Society represents a perfect intersection of his two passions. Maybe he doesn’t have a coherent policy, but surely he can manage to write a note from Woodbridge Hall.
Finally, I think it’s important to point out that juniors are not blameless for their ignorance or uncertainty about the society process. Often we are too nervous to ask even the most basic questions, afraid we’ll be punished for coming on too strong. Societies are quiet, but we don’t push them for answers either. Clearly many of us are willing to invest in an institution that we know little about and that keeps us at bay. We care more about getting in than about the thing itself. We’re quick to attach our sense of worth to a “meritocracy,” even one we do not understand.
Some of us are graceful and unfazed, but a greater number completely buy into it. In that way, society serves inadvertently as a good test of character.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.