The recent release of an 821-page history book detailing the influential rise of secret societies at Yale — “Skulls and Keys: The Hidden History of Yale’s Secret Societies” by David Richards LAW ’72 — has reignited the divisive debate over the importance of secret societies to Yale students.
In his book, Richards, a member of Skull and Bones, crafts an extensive historical narrative about the place of secret societies such as “Wolf’s Head” or “Berzelius” on Yale’s campus and within the American public imagination. Last Thursday, journalist Helen Andrews ’08 released a review of “Skulls and Keys” in the Washington Post that lambasted Richards’ history for obfuscating “the larger fact that Yale’s secret societies have long been in decline.” Andrews’ review concludes that while Harvard University is embroiled in heated debate surrounding its single-gender “final clubs,” Yale’s secret societies have perhaps slipped so far into irrelevance that they are not “important enough to be worth banning.” In an interview with the News, Richards argued that Andrews’ review of his book lacked nuance.
“There’s no question about it: [the secret societies], in terms of prestige and significance, fell off the cliff in 1969,” Richards said. “But are they as important as they used to be? I would argue that they probably are.”
Richards said it makes sense that Yale students became less interested in secret societies — traditionally dominated by “WASP-ish” legacy male students — as the University evolved into a far more diverse and meritocratic community.
Still, Richards told the News that the high number of secret societies on campus today is “astounding,” and emphasized that even if the societies do not carry the same prestige they did 60 years ago, they continue to play an important role on Yale’s campus. In his book, he cites previous News reporting that only 12 students chose to opt out of society tapping in the spring of 2015.
Alexandra Robbins ’98 — who wrote “Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League and the Hidden Paths of Power” in 2003 as John Kerry and George W. Bush, both members of Skull and Bones, competed for the US presidency — said secret societies will always have a certain appeal.
“For a certain slice of the Yale student body — certainly not everyone — secret societies still hold the same allure as they had for students of past generations,” Robbins said. “The secret societies are quintessentially Yale, and no matter how much a student might convince herself that they are relics that don’t matter anymore, it’s hard to evade both the curiosity about what really goes on inside the tombs and the longing for recognition on a campus crowded with big fish in a big pond.”
Several current members of the Yale community interviewed by the News said they understood the appeal of secret societies.
One member of a landed secret society, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the News that societies that encourage students to share personal views and experiences with one another are “valuable” because they help students grow by exposing them to diverse perspectives. In his interview, Richards said that this sort of “emotional learning” is where the value of today’s secret societies lies.
However, the student added that he thinks his society’s focus on personal growth and bonding is the exception rather than the rule, adding that many of Yale’s other secret societies more closely resemble casual drinking clubs.
Another student in one of the seven landed societies at Yale, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that while secret societies may have declined in importance, he still views them as “enjoyable and perhaps meaningful.”
“I do not think societies are “important” in the same way they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago — in other words, they wield no powerful sociopolitical influence on campus,” he said. “That being said, societies and their tap processes consume a rather large portion of a given class … in a way, therefore, they are important if only because of the number of students who are willing to devote substantial time and resources to the experience.”
Students who are not members of senior societies shared a similar outlook.
Roxy Barahman ’20 said that while she does not think secret societies are as important today as in the past, she emphasized that they do seem to offer a “very fun way to meet new people.”
And Yale College Dean Marvin Chun said he has heard many students speak positively of their experiences in societies and the opportunities they offer to meet new members of the community “outside of their usual circle.”
Still, in an email to the News, Andrews said that when she was an undergraduate at Yale, secret societies did not seem to matter even “a little.”
“I remember the day the taps for my class were printed in the paper, and I recognized maybe three names,” Andrews recalled. “It’s not just that the societies barely impinged on my consciousness. The people in them didn’t either.”
Rather than meticulously chronicling a history of secret societies, Andrews said, Richards should have written a book “that actually dishes some secrets” in order to make it a worthwhile read.
But Richards argued that the history of secret societies is more meaningful than Andrews let on in her review. He told the News that Andrews “pillaged [him] for interesting anecdotes” to include in her Washington Post review, but ended up missing the more interesting details, such as the fact that Berzelius was founded in order to let students read scientific papers that were not provided by professors.
“Skulls and Keys” was published by Pegasus Books.
Britton O’Daly | firstname.lastname@example.org