Next year marks the 350th anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Swift. I was delighted, therefore, to see that our alma mater has embarked on a yearlong celebration of the great Anglo-Irish wit and author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Tale of a Tub” and other classic works of the satirical genre. Yale has come in for a lot of harsh and unforgiving press these past few years, and unjustly so in my considered view. It is therefore very meet, right and our bounden duty to offer Yale our thanks when due.
Yale’s wry sense of humor has been in rare form lately. Reminiscent of Swift’s famous suggestion that Irish poverty could be alleviated by selling Irish babies for consumption by the rich, Yale has not shied away from vigorously lampooning the politically correct contretemps that have plagued lesser universities. (I’m looking at you, Harvard Law!)
Thus, we now have the delightfully styled “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming” and “Committee on Art in Public Spaces,” names so patently outlandish as to make the Ministry of Truth blush. Hilarious! George Orwell is surely looking down on us with a chuckle from that great Catalonia in the sky.
And then there’s the whole “Heads of Residential College” bit, a subtle dig at fanatics who suggest that Yalies aren’t capable of distinguishing between (i) an abominable relic of antebellum oppression and (ii) an utterly inoffensive term in continuous academic use since the Middle Ages. Ha! You’re killing me, Yale, stop it already!
Some practical jokers in the English major have even gotten in on the act. Like latter-day Voltaires, they proclaim that the “Major,” the “English” and the “Poets” must henceforth be stricken from a course sequence entitled “Major English Poets.” Priceless! Just imagine the look on those incoming majors’ faces when they get a load of the syllabus for the new “Minor Non-English Prosaists” requirement. Have fun with your Bourdieu and Schlegel, kids!
I’m afraid, however, that Yale’s waggish humor has been lost on some of our more earnest undergraduates, who perhaps have drunk too deeply the vintages of New Haven’s Congregationalist city fathers. The rampant sardonicism on campus seems to have gone over the heads of these students (and even the odd faculty member or administrator). They are still more juvenile than Juvenalian, you might say. But hey, no judgment here, that’s all part of the process of education. No doubt even Leo Strauss didn’t suss out all the esoteric subtexts of Plato and Machiavelli on his first try. No one ever said that persecution and the art of writing came easy, what what?
Perhaps you will indulge me to make a modest proposal of my own (Get it?) to bring the recently arrived freshmen (sorry, “first years” — I’m showing my age here) in on the joke:
In lieu of its annual Halloween concert (Let’s just avoid the subject of Halloween altogether this year, shall we?), I suggest that the Yale Symphony Orchestra hold a benefit concert in honor of the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction Irony” movement. I can just see it now: As the concertmaster — oops, I mean, “Head of Concert” — strikes up the A-string, a hush falls over the crowd gathered in Battell Chapel (or any space of equivalent safety). Under the baton of the “Capo” (not the “Maestro,” tsk tsk!), the ensemble launches into excerpts from Wagner’s renowned headpiece, “Die Hauptsinger von Nürnberg.” I’m sure the whole class of 2020 will dissolve in peals of laughter, and a great time will be had by all — and for a great cause.
From Cole Porter, class of 1913, to William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 to Lewis Black DRA ’77, Yalies have always been able to make (and take) a joke. (And if they can’t for some reason, you can always avail yourself of the remedy of disinvitation.) We are no dour Cantabrigian sourpusses — we wear our learning lightly and leaven the Elm City with our jollity. Hearty thanks to the Yale community for restoring my faith in our great, tolerant, collegial, impassioned and (when necessary) bitingly satirical institution of higher learning.
Or have I, perhaps, missed the joke myself?
Wallace DeWitt is the Secretary of the Yale College Class of 2003. Contact him at C.Wallace.DeWitt@allenovery.com .