It’s that time of year again: society tap.
Throughout our Yale career, there are limited opportunities to find social groups, that is, groups who reliably convene for the sake of getting to know one another — ones you’d think of spending your weekends with. These groups exist in the form of greek life, athletic teams or perhaps close-knit performing arts groups, but beyond that, they can be difficult to come by.
Societies offer exactly this: a group of 16 or so likely-to-be strangers from across the University who have made a shared commitment to devote at least a couple hours every Thursday and Sunday purely to being in the company of one another.
This past year especially, having a group to turn to — even if just virtually — when starved for social interaction has been a saving grace. But our society experiences have encompassed so much more. They have been an introspective foray into being vulnerable with strangers who each live distinct lives.
Bios, for example, are a quintessential component of the society experience. These are opportunities for each member to tell their life story, and they often can run for hours. We aren’t the first to point out just how insightful and fulfilling these shared stories can be. How many of our non-society friends have actually heard the rundown of our entire lives, including the good, the bad and everything in between? Through these narratives, bios have the power to connect people from disparate backgrounds under a shared umbrella — 16 new names, new stories.
That being said, societies are not a perfect institution. As many columnists have pointed out, senior societies can be one of the most controversial parts of the Yale undergraduate experience. Some have dubbed it to be the “thing at Yale with [the] worst ratio of ‘potential to be good’ to ‘is actually good.’” Others have argued that senior societies are a system that represent “everything [that] any good liberal education would have us question.”
In many ways, they’re right. As Amelia Nierenberg ’18 is apt in characterizing, senior societies systemically are, and have been from their conception, a breeding ground for elitism, exclusivity and inequality. In some sense, participating in a senior society is like drawing straws — much of it is outside one’s immediate control. In and of itself, that element of chance may not be a bad thing, but there are two key issues with the institution as it currently stands.
First, there aren’t enough straws to go around. The mismatch of supply and demand between societies and seniors breeds exclusivity through scarcity. It’s exactly that exclusivity which so many critics point to as a reason to abolish senior societies, because it undercuts our feeling of community — the very same community which societies promise to help strengthen.
Second, for the people who do end up lucky enough to draw a straw, the straws end up being unequal lengths. Across societies, the disparity in resources is drastic. Some have official meeting places and multimillion dollar endowments, while others have little more than a mysterious name. Some have extensive alumni networks that extend to decades past; Others were formed in the last few years.
But these problems with drawing straws don’t necessarily mean we should forgo the game entirely. At the end of the day, the core value of societies — mutual intention to get to know one another — exists independently of resources, and it is worth preserving. We must strive for a more equitable society (and tap) experience. In the short term, through groups like the Yale Society Initiative, we have to expand the opportunities for anyone to join a society if they wish.
Still, this does not resolve the other issue of inequality between societies, which is a deeper, more complex problem. The conversation around the unequal distribution of resources is one reminiscent of other aspects of our lives. The most salient example of this is our attendance at Yale, which itself is embroiled in the conversation on inequality between institutions of higher education. Yes, we should try to even out the lengths of the straws of society, but more urgent is ensuring that everyone who wants to draw a straw has the opportunity to.
The solution here doesn’t need to be abolishing senior societies as an institution. If you receive a mysterious letter with a wax seal in your mailbox, you have every right to toss it in the garbage, but you are also justified in keeping it. There is a reason to search for belonging in senior societies, but participating in a society does not mean we can turn a blind eye to the institution’s faults. We can be thankful for what societies afford us while also remaining cognizant of the fact that, as the system currently stands, many end up inevitably excluded from the process.
Fundamentally, senior societies have the potential to be good. In our own experiences over the course of the last few months, we’ve each gotten to meet friends of immense character and talent. And while our experiences and backgrounds are incredibly diverse, we’ve somehow managed to create something special — a home for one another, a commitment to each other and a place to belong.
So if you find yourself interested when that invitation comes around, we’d say go for it.
AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray College. His column, “It’s Complicated,” runs every other Wednesday. JACK CHAPMAN is a rising senior in Pauli Murray College.