This past weekend, Yalies engaged in the time-honored tradition of scalping tickets for the Yale Symphony Orchestra’s Halloween show. As any junior or senior is painfully aware, tickets for the popular Halloween night show sell out within minutes, and some enterprising Yalies seize the opportunity to make a quick buck. So why do Yalies develop a taste for Mozart seemingly overnight? And why is scalping so frowned upon? Perhaps it is because the YSO Show is one of the few remaining traditions that all students on campus share.
A recent column in the News bemoaned the slow, silent death of Yale’s residential college system — one of the few things that unites all Yalies (Schick: Our broken college system). Some blame falls on our atrociously priced dining plan and our perennially dysfunctional housing process. But the real issue is more complex. To save our colleges, some argue, we must grapple with the following question: What distinguishes the Yale experience from any other? The answer lies in traditions like the YSO show. If we want to save the residential college system, we need more events like these, not another ramen bar in the dining halls.
Traditions imbue institutions with a sense of continuity. Last year, after meeting some older alumni at the Harvard-Yale game, it occurred to me that I have very little in common with the Trumbullians of yore. They lived in Durfee, not Bingham; many of them had chants and songs memorized that I had never heard. Even across years, traditions seemed to be what helped them feel a sense of camaraderie with one another. However, many of these alumni would find my Yale experience foreign. They attended Screws, not college dances. They were once freshmen, not first years.
Residential colleges, and Yale in general for that matter, have changed quite a bit since the mid-20th Century. What’s unique about the last decade or so, however, is that the pace of this change seems to have accelerated. Every year, there’s been one major change: Commons became Schwarzman, Calhoun became Hopper, Masters became Heads. Life at residential colleges has changed to make students feel more comfortable at Yale. But with so many changes made so fast, residential colleges feel fundamentally different than they did four years ago. This makes it a lot easier to leave them and move off campus. There’s nothing that makes these colleges feel like more than just glorified dorms; there are not enough traditions that make residential colleges feel special.
Of course, there are a few traditions that remain. Trumbull, for instance, hosts an event called Pamplona each year, in which we break out bull paraphernalia, run across Cross Campus and then throw a party in one of our courtyards. I wish that we had more of these events. There’s some indication that the University administration knows this. The problem is that their ideas for new traditions are woefully inadequate. Does anyone remember celebrating last year’s Founders Day? My first year, the University created an annual event to commemorate Yale’s founding, which sounds like a great opportunity for community bonding. What it’s ended up being over the years is an excuse to trot out Yale-branded plastic cups and jugs of flavored water on Cross Campus. A few cucumber slices in water does not make a community experience.
Without residential college or University traditions, students turn to their clubs instead. A first-year counselor recently remarked that one of his first years wants to move off campus as quickly as possible so that he can be closer to the News’ building. Today, Yale is segregated by interests, which is exactly what the University sought to avoid by creating the residential college system. It would be a deeply dissatisfying college experience if the wealthy stuck to riding horses with other wealthy students and writers stuck to reading Shakespeare with other writers in rooms devoid of STEM majors. The closest thing to a shared Yale experience that we have today is the Yale Memes Facebook group. It’s a shame that a Facebook group filled with horribly photoshopped images is a better unifier for the campus community than the multi-million-dollar residential college system.
Instead of staging photo ops, the residential colleges ought to focus on creating more shared experiences, whether that means singing songs, hosting events or starting new traditions. The new residential colleges are gorgeous works of architecture, but as a friend of mine aptly put it, it’s hard to feel any sort of affinity for a pretty chandelier. Yale would do well to remember that Handsome Dan was once just a bulldog that students found funny because he barked at Harvard athletes. If we want more stories like Handsome Dan’s, we need the chance to create them.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .