Editors’ Note: This piece originally appeared in the 2019 Commencement Issue, published on May 20, 2019.
“Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.”
Or is she?
George W. Pierson, the great scholar of Tocqueville and grandson of Yale founder Abraham Pierson, is often lauded for accurately capturing the spirit of our University with his famous adage.
Last year, however, a subtle heist took place at Commencement that ought to make us question Pierson’s words. The traditional closing hymn of the service, “O God Beneath Thy Guiding Hand,” also known as “The New Haven Hymn,” was surreptitiously replaced by a new song, “Let Light and Truth Suffuse the Mind.”
The former was written in 1838 on the 200th anniversary of New Haven’s settlement and has been sung at Yale for over a century. It recalls the New Haven Puritans, including John Davenport, who came to America with “laws, freedom, truth, and faith in God.”
For over a hundred years, we Yalies, alongside New Havenites, were considered stewards of that story — a story not just of this city’s founding, but of the consecration of a new type of freedom. The Puritans sought liberty not to do as they please, but to give themselves over to the vast world beyond themselves.
The new hymn forgoes that noble task, a fitting send-off to Yalies about to enter a fragile society. The new conclusion to our Yale journey will instead tell us that our duty is more insular. We should be concerned, the hymn implies, not with dedicating ourselves to a project beyond these hallowed walls, but instead, “through science, scholarship and art” we should let “knowledge, truth and wisdom grow.”
The light of revelation is still enshrined within this new song, but that light ultimately paves a path towards cold hard reason — ending solely with our own enlightenment. “Our founders knew that faith requires the discipline of sturdy thought,” the hymn intones. Ironically, none of that thought is evident in the erasure of a song that tied Yale to the fabric of its city and the world.
This move should be as unsettling to all of us as it apparently was for University Provost Ben Polak whose face displays a rare moment of confusion in the 2018 commencement video as he, after glancing quickly at President Salovey, visibly struggles to mouth the newly secularized words with which the New Haven Hymn has been overwritten.
Now, some may call my concern quaint and inconsequential — changing tradition, after all, is not inherently bad. But making change in haste, without awareness or sufficient discussion, sets a dangerous precedent for a University whose strength lies in its lengthy institutional memory.
We, the Class of 2019, are the last group of students to have witnessed the most drastic changes to this campus following the chaotic events of 2015.
Calhoun. Master’s Tea. Freshman Dinner. Freshman Olympics. Commons. These five now-controversial terms grace the word matrix on the back of the shirts the Class of 2019 received upon being admitted to Yale. They are a resounding reminder of a deep transformation in our University’s identity, one that was more visceral for us than for any class below. Now, to the chagrin of only a few, we have Hopper, Heads of College, First Years, and Schwarzman.
Were those changes, like the disappearance of our Commencement hymn, also made in haste?
The change from Calhoun to Hopper was at least made after some thought. A committee of professors researched the college’s history and gave the renaming some of the weight it deserved. But Master to Head and Freshman to First Year? These changes were arbitrary, without a hint of meaningful discussion save for a few opinion pieces written after the fact. The transformation of Commons into the Schwarzman Center, meanwhile, is the antithesis of a community decision — a quick and unnecessary money grab whose construction will prevent our class from lingering with our families on Beinecke Plaza after baccalaureate.
Our response to tradition need not be an either/or. We should neither dogmatically accept traditions of old nor destroy them without reflection, but revive them — even rebel against them, but always from a position of reverence. Dr. Peter Gomes, the great African American minister from that red-brick, paltry excuse for a school in Cambridge had these words to say about finding himself in the story of the Puritans:
“I can see the Puritans sailing in, I can see Henry Dunster’s first commencement, and the incredible thing is that I can see me in it! People sometimes say, ‘Well, in those days you wouldn’t have been there.’ Please, you don’t have to tell me that. The glory of Harvard is that although I might not have had a share in its past, that past now belongs to me! Now, that is an extraordinary transaction.”
For once, we should take a cue from our rivals and heed Gomes’s wisdom. We too should consciously see ourselves in Yale’s founding, 318 years ago, or in New Haven’s founding, 381 years ago.
I would only make one addendum to Gomes’s closing line. To “commence” means to “begin” — thus our extraordinary transaction today is also an extraordinary transition.
By graduating, you become a precious keeper of Yale’s past and its aspirations. We, the Class of 2019, have been given the chance to reaffirm the hopes of Yale as our own. Soon, we begin the world anew — as Yalies.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and a former staff columnist for the News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .