On Thursday evening, a fleet of stretch limos and handfuls of party buses will descend upon the streets of campus. Women and men in the senior class will don their Thursday/Sunday best, comb their hair, adorn white masks and robes and scurry off to their “tombs,” ready to welcome the chosen juniors who will make up their society’s incoming membership. The limo drivers will stand outside their vehicles, ready to open the doors for their passengers, overwhelmed and euphoric Yale juniors. Some who are studying abroad will be flown in from Paris, Buenos Aires and Copenhagen by their new societies. They will be introduced to the Egyptian-themed thrones in Wolf’s Head, marvel at the Tiffany Room of Scroll and Key. Each society will tell its new taps what makes it unique and the best, and what a privilege it is that they have been invited to join its ranks. These juniors will learn, as Scroll and Key reportedly tells its recruits, that they have been chosen because they represent the pinnacle in their field: They are told that they are the best scholar-athletes, dancers, actors and political leaders on campus. They will meet their organization’s distinguished alumni who will tell them how their new society will help them achieve success.
The societies without fancy tombs will take their taps to off-campus apartments — some rented, some owned. Some groups will travel to second homes in the countryside to celebrate. Others will rent mansions on the coast and throw lavish parties. Some newer societies will go bowling, and feel bad that they can’t pay for a more extravagant affair.
And for the juniors who aren’t invited into these groups by their peers, many will be upset and feel alone. Some will sit up late in their rooms, wondering what they did wrong to be left out of what some have proclaimed the “best” part of senior year. To those juniors, I can tell you: You will be fine. More than fine. You will have additional time and energy to pursue new passions and meet new people. You will have fresh opportunities to grow as a human being.
At the very least, to those who are uninvited, don’t allow yourself to romanticize what will happen this evening. As one professor who has been on campus for many years recently observed, “College seniors will receive the keys to shiny stone castles, and then they’ll start acting like kindergartners.”
Societies are elitist and exclusive. They are predicated on elevating young and growing adults — 21 to 23 year olds — to a place of stature that no student on this campus has earned. These institutions create more divisions among communities, friend groups and individuals at Yale than any other campus tradition, and perhaps most disturbingly, I would argue they foster hypocrisy. I can’t begin to count the number of people I know here who rail against elitism and exclusivity, against “aristocracy, “patriarchy” and the “1 percent,” and then join these very organizations who perpetuate much of the same thing. Union advocates, environmental leaders, radical feminists and progressive political activists — the list goes on. Students who have fought for economic justice and distinguished themselves in this area will end up enjoying lavish dinners funded by alumni whose ideologies they theoretically detest. While thankfully society membership today doesn’t resemble the homogeneity of decades past, these groups continue to operate based on the ever-present principles of superiority and privilege.
I’m not naïve. I know this system is not going to vanish. Our school’s dean and president are known to dine with some of the “landed” societies at their tombs every year. But I do have one hope for the juniors who are given the keys to their stone buildings tonight: Don’t abandon your core values, friends and communities after you are told that you are the best. Even better, if people are outspoken about rejecting offers from these societies or not receiving them, perhaps we can dispel the myth that they are the crowning achievement of a Yale experience. And to the rejected juniors who are wondering what happened, pondering what you did “wrong”: Forget about it. You did what felt right, and lived your life as you thought it should be lived. You still can go on to do great things, even if some Yale seniors aren’t telling you that tonight. C.S. Lewis wrote that “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.” Your classmates are about to think about themselves twice a week, six hours at a time, for a year. Take solace in knowing you’ll be following the writer’s advice.
A remarkably accurate 1950 Harvard Crimson article, which examined the Yale “credo of success,” noted that “[Society members’] philosophy is that the world can best be run by themselves.” While I have sadly heard tales of societies perpetuating this ethos today, for our world’s sake, I hope that it is ultimately lead by a more inclusive, varied and humble group than many of those — juniors and seniors — who will walk into their tombs tonight.
Rafi Bildner is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .