Secret societies affect everyone at Yale by shaping our culture and aspirations. Even if you aren’t interested in a society, it’s likely the people around you are. This year, only 12 students in the entire junior class decided to opt out of the society process.
Plenty of columns on this page have decried the existence of societies. But beyond simple criticism, it’s important to consider how societies create a class structure at Yale and train us to be social competitors.
When we arrive at Yale, we don’t get to choose our suitemates. The University intends for us to live with people whose backgrounds are completely different. It’s an effort to democratize the experience.
It works for a while. We forget about our different backgrounds since we eat in the same dining halls, take the same classes and sleep in identical beds.
Junior spring we are reintroduced to class in an unambiguous way. The entire process is almost a caricature of itself: the tap lines, the wax-sealed letters and the windowless tombs. To the outsider, it reeks of elitism.
The old societies trade on ties to institutions and families that hand down power through these types of hidden channels. That the oldest societies still remain the most sought-after shows how privilege has endured to this day. But the growth in the number of societies suggests how hungry everyone is to belong.
There are all sorts of new societies to accommodate the socially mobile. These are the West Eggs of the society system. Don’t kid yourself that these new societies are any different. The principle of selectivity for its own sake persists. The only difference is that these societies are lower on the hierarchy, and exist to exclude 70 percent of the student body while the older ones exist to exclude 99 percent of us.
The society system transforms a flat community into a hierarchy. Open rooms become closed doors.
When you choose to join a society, you think you are only making a personal decision. But the act of separation is an active choice. You are altering the community and separating yourself from the vast majority who did not receive taps.
Perhaps I’m being naïve. Maybe Yale’s attempt to create a flat community is too idealistic. Cliques existed in high school — society suggests these never go away.
But secret societies don’t just change our environment, but us as individuals. They train us to be social competitors.
A lot of us are at Yale precisely because we are good social competitors. We are good at getting letters of recommendation, winning grants and fellowships — using the right language with the right connections.
You might argue: These skills are all important means to more meaningful ends.
I agree. But sometimes we focus so much on the means that they become ends in and of themselves.
Sometimes exclusivity isn’t just justified but necessary. Only five people can step on a basketball court to represent Yale. A cappella groups can only hold so many people. Even Yale itself needs to be selective — we can only accommodate a certain number of students.
But societies aren’t exclusive for some higher end. We seek societies not as means to noble ends but for the prestige itself. It doesn’t reward a skill, but whoever has the best connections or can ingratiate themselves in the right circles.
Societies don’t just reflect values. They actively shape the values and aspirations of our community. For those who already exercise this mentality, it reinforces their attitude. For those who don’t, it introduces them to this kind of thinking and demonstrates its potential rewards.
Societies change our values, but the most destructive part in my eyes is that they change how we perceive and value relationships. It’s not a surprise that even the so-called “meritocratic” societies often hand down taps to their best friends. It’s not a surprise that so many juniors clamor to join the right groups or befriend the right upperclassmen.
Society distorts how we view other people. A friendship becomes a letter of acceptance. Their value is proportional to the society they are in.
Maybe all this is preparation for the real world. It trains us to think about whom we want to associate ourselves with. It teaches us how to ingratiate ourselves with old channels of power.
Eliminating societies won’t solve this problem overnight. We will still all have the instinct to exclude and form inner circles. But societies provide a framework for us to act on this instinct.
Kevin Tan is a junior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .