"Boys go to Harvard for intellectual reasons," President Lowell used to say. "They go to Princeton for social reasons. But why does anyone go to Yale?"
Even the aspiring Yalie may not know the answer, but he soon finds out. He is going to Yale to become a Success. His undergraduate life is a four-year push to become a "wheel," to be socially acceptable, to approximate that archtype of merit, the Yale Man. Not that the Administration nurse this tradition: president and deans admit ruefully that Yale is a college of come-outers and go-getters and deplores the philosophy of "success for the sake of success." But the tradition is still there. A recent study of Yale society concluded, "Because the definition of success permeates the whole community, the Yale social system tends to be a training for this type of successful man."
Early in his freshman year, the Yalie starts competing with 100 other yearlings for top handholds on the Eli ladder of success. Competition is the heart of undergraduate life. One out of every three students "heels" strenuously for hard-won posts on the Yale News, the athletic manager hierarchy, or even the Student Laundry Association, in eye-blearing competitions that often demand 70 hours a week. The word "heel" perhaps refers to that part of the clothing most evident as the heeler hustles down streets selling ads, rushes through New Haven collecting bills, and bends over to swab floors and dump trash buckets. Or, as one heeler suggested last week, it may derive from a dog's heeling.
RMOC's at Tongue-tip
If the heeler makes the grade, his reward is "prestige." That's a word often heard around New Haven. When a man breaks onto the Yale Record he is admired by everyone, not because he can write well, which he often can't but because he has achieved success and become a wheel. As one Eli explained, he "fought and conquered." Ask a Yalie who the "big men on campus" are, and he'll reel off a dozen or so names and positions. Year-book polls show that 70 percent of the students "admire students who occupy important extra-curricular positions" and 69 percent "would like to be prominent in extra-curricular activities"; almost as many varsity athletes want to be chairman of the Yale News as captain of the football team. The chairmen of the News are held in near-veneration, even by those who believe that the last two were respectively a spineless yes-man and a Fascist. This would surprise a Harvard man, who usually accepts people on personal worth, and would be hard put to remember the name of the president of the Student Council.
Yale's wheels earn more than the awe of their fellows; there are three kinds of institutions on the Eli campus that honor their achievements with coveted memberships. Where Harvard has only Phi Beta Kappa, Yale also boasts of nine fraternities, two honor societies, and six fabled secret societies.
Considering the uselessness of joining Eli fraternities, so far as dining, rooming, or eating goes, it seems strange that one out of every five students is a member and 31 percent of the others wish they were. No one believes they encourage "fraternity" between members; they are used sparingly on weekdays for beers, and heavily on week-ends for dances and jazz blowouts. But these affairs are usually open to everyone in the college, and even out of the college. Perhaps their popularity stems from this: they honor the universal goals of conviviality and extra-curricular success, and therefore are to be sought after. The boy who gets in becomes that much more of a wheel.
The honor societies--Torch and Aurelian --also pay homage to what one professor called "the outstanding guys." For their 30 or so members, it is a rather pleasant relationship, with a luncheon every week and a few lectures and projects. But they are coveted far beyond their value or necessity on the Yale scene.
Misunderstood, feared, revered, and gossiped, the secret societies cap every Yale-man's ambitions. Their windowless, padlocked tombs squat on central points in the campus; tight-lipped members emerge from ponderous doors at midnight and lock-step through the streets of New Haven.
Since the six Societies, blatantly and confessedly, elect members on the strength of extra-curricular success, an induction into their secrecy is something more for the climbing Yalie to aspire to.
Fish Horns and Water Bills
Rumor shrouds the tombs thicker than their sagging ivy wines. Campus reports say that Skull and Bones men will leave the room when their society is mentioned; that firemen once entered Berzelius to douse a blaze and had to be accepted as members; that hair-raising and lascivious practices occur inside the meeting-place vaults. Actually the "spooks"--as sour-grapes outsiders call them--take their membership very seriously. Henry L. Stimson always stayed with fellow Bonesmen in Paris, rather than with the ambassador; Professor F. O. Matthiessen laid his Bones Key on a farewell note before jumping to his death.
Such mysteries as the lugubrious drums, bells, and fish horns that echo in tombs during initiations, the awsome initials OTIRUNBCDIFT on the Skull and Bones catalog, and the Wolf's Head water bill-highest in New Haven--these are likely to attract the most callous student. Yet most students do not heel their way up the extra-curricular ladder for the sale goal of "going Bones," or at least they say they don't. The six tombs are more important as the extreme result of the Yale credo of success, and as an exaggerated example of it. For the spooks' philosophy is that the world can best be run by themselves, the outstanding men of Yale. In brutal wrestling matches and communal criticism, they prepare each other for success in life. Bonesmen Henry Luce, Robert A. Taft, Archibald MacLeish, and McGeorge Bundy of the Government department have succeeded; those who don't succeed or don't try to succeed get a talking to from Bonesmen who converge from all parts of the globe to do the job. Being the second richest corporation in Connecticut, next to Yale itself, Skull and Bones is well equipped to put errant brothers on the right track.
In less radical form, this success credo is the credo of Yale. So is the narrow definition of success. Because success comes only to the highest men in the extra-curricular strats and in athletics, both draw a heavy crowd of participants at Yale. Just as life at Princeton centers on the social clubs, existence at Yale revolves around extra-curricular activ- ities. Almost everyone has a loyalty to at least one, and most students spend over an hour a day on it. The desire to belong, and that way get some measure of prestige, leads to such activities as the "Ale, Stick and Ball" Society," the "Ale. Quail, Chowder and Marching Society," and "The Haunt Club." The last yearbook ran formal photos and write-ups on the "President Tilden Club" and the "Good Guys Club of America."
Yale's definition of success excludes the man who too ardently seeks to get ahead. Elis frown on the "pusher." A heeler is thus in the disconcerting position of working night and day on an activity, and at the same time exuding the impression that he really isn't interested. As a result, Yalies often look apathetic and uninspired in performing their extra-curricular functions.