Yale was founded as The Collegiate School in 1701, with the goal of maintaining the stringent standards of Puritan religion that its founders viewed as slipping at the increasingly lax Harvard. In 1722, the college trustees voted to require the faculty to affirm the principles of Congregational Protestantism via an oath before taking office. Thomas Clap, president of Yale from 1740 to 1766, stated that without religious study, study of the arts and sciences was “comparatively worth but little.” Yale had mandatory chapel services until the 1920s, when they were phased out because students were making a mockery of them. Shortly after those services were eliminated, the university began a “Limitation of Numbers” program to limit the number of Jewish students admitted, using language of “character.” Notes from the admissions office in 1922 state that “the alien and unwashed element in college should be reduced rather than increased,” a program which was to be instituted by way admissions interviews intended to weed out Jewish students. As piety was being phased out, Yale held tighter to a cultural language where Protestant Christianity was the norm.
Though the Yale we attend today is a vastly different Yale than that of the 1720s or the 1920s, our school nevertheless remains a Protestant place. This finds expression in ways that are obvious, like in the assumptions made about religious knowledge, and less obvious, like in the ways we think about extracurriculars. And we have very little language for talking about religion that itself is not based in Protestantism.
As a Judaic studies major and a person interested in religion writ large, I consider myself relatively religiously literate. Yet, when I took an art history class last semester, I found myself continually Googling things like “the Annunciation,” and “what is an altarpiece?” The professor, who often thoughtfully reflected on gender, race and class in his lectures, nevertheless assumed that all students shared the cultural and educational background to understand Christian text and practice. This is a common assumption on our campus, but as we widen our collective understanding of what comprises a well-rounded education, we must also change what we presume to be basic cultural literacy. Not all students are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount or know what Communion is, and we should not be expected to be.
Christian hegemony on our campus goes deeper than simply elements of education that are not shared as they are believed to be. We are incapable of having a conversation about religion itself that does not work in terms of Protestant language and values. At least as often as we talk about “religion” at Yale, we talk about “faith,” — the interchangeability of the terms is the product of a religion that places the highest priority on individual cerebral and emotional experience in connecting with God. “Faith” is not the right word for Judaism, which is far more about regular ritual and community in historical context, nor is it the right word for many other religions observed in our campus community. Dialogue between and about religious people at Yale should start with our fundamental assumptions about what we believe religion is and ought to be, before we can progress to how it affects our lives.
Even for those completely outside of any religious community, Protestant norms structure our undergraduate lives and choices. We constantly seek more and better extracurricular groups, ostensibly to become well-rounded. A long list of extracurriculars gives a person cache — not to mention a more compelling law school application. We prioritize the individual working on themselves through extracurricular groups, rather than committing deeply to joining a community and working to enhance that community and thereby enhance themselves and everyone in it. This is part of Yale’s Protestant heritage: just as the individual works on their own private relationship with God, so too the undergraduate individual works on improving themselves. (Those committed to religion, Christianity included, tend to have this problem less — the Protestantism I’m talking about is a set of cultural assumptions.) Community can, in this model, fall by the wayside.
The Yale of today is a patchwork of people of all and no religions, people who pray daily and people who meditate weekly, people for whom God is always present and people who think they might have felt Her once. We should begin to speak in a way that reflects that, and even more so, to think in a way that draws from the richness and history of more of human experience than Protestant Christianity. Our campus too often feels like a group of individuals working on themselves in the same place at the same time; we ought to strive to be a community working for each other, towards higher purposes.
Avigayil Halpern is a junior in Silliman College and a staff columnist at-large. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .