The Quest at Princeton For the Cocktail Soul

"My own ideals for the University are those of a genuine democracy and serious scholarship. The two, indeed, seem to me to go together. Any organization which introduces elements of social exclusiveness constitutes the worst possible soil for serious intellectual endeavor...Any organization that has the idea of exclusiveness at its foundation is antagonistic to the best training for citizenship in a democratic country...My conviction has been confirmed by everything that I have heard and inquired into, that the Clubs, as now organized, must go, or Princeton will cease to be an important element in University leadership in this country." --Thomas Woodrow Wilson

"Now I know you guys up at Harvard put an emphasis on individualism and that's fine," he said refusing to acknowledge my deprecatory gesture an attempt to interrupt. "But down here we like a less impersonal way of living so you like and can be with who you want for your friends and choose the guys you eat with."

A cold wind swept over the thick dark grass outside, whistled through the moonlit Gothic stonework, the parapets, battlements, and pinnacles intricately crowning the buildings with medieval bulk and solemnity.

And through the windows glaring orange out of a hundred majestic black bastions, the committees are seen as they come calling, catching sophomores just accidentally attired from top to toe in immaculate tweeds, and Exeter yearbooks displayed with casual prominence.

"Hello, we're from Cottage."

"Come right on in," and an inchoate cordial babble of welcome as they all heartily seat themselves, and suddenly find a terrifying silence left standing.

"Uh, that looks like an old Currier and Ives you've got up there" (the walls, they always start with what you've got hanging on the walls, or with what you're majoring in or what you did last summer or where you're from--but avoid that one, there's danger there.

And so it goes for ten or fifteen minutes. Total strangers confronting total strangers, making nervous small talk with artificial poise, watching through narrow eyes for the wrong color of socks, a grammatical slip or affectation, a pun or wisecrack in questionable taste. Then

"Well, we really must be running along. A lot of men to see tonight you know."

"Well, we've certainly enjoyed chatting with you."

Smiling and nodding and hand shaking them out the door, then turning to roommates with dread or accusations; and outside in the hall, the committees rating personalities on a grading system from one to seven (except for Ivy, the top, which needs only a plus or minus)--one even reporting the decision, incredibly enough, on a walkie-talkie:

"This is Pete calling in for Cottage. Negative on wonks in Patton 96. Dirty story, grubby room. That's right: negative."

It's a two-dollar, one-hour train ride from Princeton, New Jersey to either Philadelphia or New York City. The nearest thing to a girl's college for miles around is the public high school, and there are only three theaters in the entire town. When seeking relief from the academic life, therefore, the average Princeton man invariably turns to his club. There he not only takes all his meals, but forms friendships, watches television, plays squash or bridge or ping-pong, drinks, parties, holds bull sessions, and even studies. Unless he's on a varsity team, its intramural program is his only athletic outlet, and, when he becomes an alumnus, its activities will form the foci for found memories, homecoming weekends, and pleas for financial support. More than any other part of the campus, it is the center of his life at Princeton.

"Bicker" is the annual process by which sophomores are chosen for election to the unproctored, privately owned and operated eating clubs. The college newspaper calls it "the most important single value-forming experience of the average undergraduate's career at Princeton."

The object of Bicker, according to a booklet published by the clubs themselves ("Now That You Are Eligible"), is to discover "personableness in the individual" and "congeniality of the total section." It is a method for assuring each club that any student to whom it offers a bid is of the "club type."

Immediately after finals--this year on Thursday, January 30, the Bicker committees of the clubs start to make their calls. These calls continue for ten days. Classes resume not long after Bicker has started, but they are largely ignored, sophomores finding it "hard to read anything more advanced than Peyton Place."

The committees call between the hours of four and six in the afternoon at first, then between seven-thirty in the evening and midnight. On the basis of a few minutes of stereotyped small talk the committees rate the eligibles, and the clubs immediately begin cutting their lists, most "from the top" as well as "from the bottom." Each night fewer clubs come calling at a given room. If, on the last night of the Bicker period, a sophomore is still receiving a committee, he has probably procured a "first-list bid." If not, and he has good friends whom a certain club is anxious to have, he may receive a "second-list bid" that will get him in if they accept their first-list bids, or if not enough first-list men accept that club's bids to fill its "section." Some sophomores receive bids from a number of clubs. Others receive none at all.

Individual sophomores are associated together in complexes of friends known as "preferentials," all of whose members desire to remain together with varying degrees of zeal. The exigencies of Bicker force most of these preferentials into greater or less states of disintegration, a process which widely subjects old friendships to severe strains and sometimes even shatters them. A sophomore's preferential group may also be used by the clubs to appraise and manipulate him throughout the Bicker procedure.

Saturday afternoon at Holder Court, club representatives and hundreds of sophomores shivering in the icy wind stand with hands thrust in pockets or holding frigid beer cans, grouping and regrouping, talking in fast desperate undertones, trying to bargain friends into the same group, unload undesirables elsewhere, bid a sad goodby (as if parting forever) to classmates joining other clubs:

"Well, best of luck, Chuck." (wet eyed and swallowing hard) "I'm sure sorry you and George won't be going with me into Cannon."

"Ted's in trouble. He hasn't a bid yet. If you'd only turn down Tiger, Eldon, the two of us could get him into Charter."

"Hell, I hope Braddock does go to Key; I always thought he was a bastard anyhow."

Holder tower looms high above the thick mud that clogs the cordovans and white sneakers. "Named in honor of Christopher Holder," the plaque reads, "a member of the Society of Friends in America in the seventeenth century, devout, loyal to duty, patient in suffering." Gargoyles leer down at the spectacle over the cloister arcade and from a phonograph stuck out the second-floor window of four entry the voice of a rock-and-roll singer blares fortissimo:

"Ain't That A Sha-a-a-ame!"

There is a definite hierarchy among the clubs at Princeton which is universally acknowledged, though the caste structure obviously implied by it is widely denied to exist. The highest echelon consists of "the big five." Ivy Club (wryly called "The Vine") is at the absolute summit; then follow, in no particular order, Tiger Inn, Colonial ("The Pillars"), Cap and Gown ("The Cap"), and Cottage ("The Cheese")--among whose former members have been both F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Foster Dulles. Graduates of the most famous Eastern prep schools, the scions of stock hallowed by generations of fame and money, and other individuals who can sell themselves well in fifteen minutes or so, are nearly assured admission to one of these. To make Ivy is social apotheosis.

Then follow the host of "middle clubs," subject to gradation among themselves no doubt, though here any explicit ranking would be less objective and not generally conceded: Campus, Cannon, Charter, Cloister, Court, Dial, Elm, Key and Seal, Quadrangle, Terrace, and Tower. Dial took this year's only Negro.

Certain stereotypes are associated with some of the clubs which, like all stereotypes, fail in many individual instances. They are, however, more reliable, on the whole, than the images connected with the respective Harvard houses. Thus, the campus "doers" or activity men are apt to be found in Cap and Gown or Quadrangle, and athletes tend to turn up, according to their inmost natures, either in Tiger Inn, the lair of "the gentlemen jocks," or in Cannon, home of "the sweaty ones." The captain of this year's football team, however, is in Ivy, which always has its pick of the entire class.

Sharing the bottom of the social scale with Prospect Club--though ranking, if possible, even further down--is Woodrow Wilson Lodge, or, as it is commonly called, "the facility." Wilson Lodge was founded last year by the University and supposedly provides "an alternative to the club system" for those who want neither to renounce all social activity for three years of college life nor to pass through the indignity of Bicker and accept membership in one of the seventeen eating clubs. But any one in the university, with the possible exception of the administration, will freely admit that the three-room facility in no sense provides a satisfactory alternative.

Last year, in an attempt to raise Wilson's prestige, Sophomore Vice President Robert Hillier dramatically announced that he would accept no bids from any club, but would join the Lodge and bring "sixty or seventy of the good men in the class" along with him. "Everyone's afraid that the facility will become a dumping ground," he stated. "Someone has to make the move to destroy the stigma that will result." Today, Hillier has become a junior member of Quadrangle Club, there are only twenty-one people in the facility, and it, along with Prospect, is a dumping ground.

Prospect Unique

The youngest, the cheapest, and the shabbiest of the clubs is Prospect. It is also the most democratically governed. Founded ten years ago, Prospect is unique in demanding neither undergraduate nor alumni dues, and its term rate is eighty dollars less than that of Tower and a hundred and thirty dollars less than Ivy, which otherwise represent the two extremes. More important, Prospect is unlike the other organizations on Prospect Street in that its policies are not determined privately by a small clique of officers and a powerful graduate board. Alone among the clubs, Prospect can hold the sort of Bicker its members actually want.

This year Prospect announced that any sophomore who wished to join might do so by simply dropping in and signing the books, until either its capacity had been reached or the official deadline arrived. Isolated idealism of this sort, however, was native in a situation so inherently unprincipled at its roots. The thousand and one vices and foibles of the system have long been concealed by the democratic boast that "everyone who wants to, makes a club." Jim Ridgeway, chairman of The Daily Princetonian, published an editorial warning Prospect that its policy would prove disastrous, that one club would be used as a scapegoat and dumping ground by the irresponsible other sixteen, who could then continue the old boast without themselves doing a thing to achieve it. As a result, the Interclub Committee summoned Ridgeway and his managing editor to their meeting place in the library of Ivy Club, hotly denounced them both for "incompetence," failure to "cooperate," a "negative" and "critical" attitude, and formally broke off all relations with the Princetonian.

Without once making specific criticisms of what had been written or charging factual inaccuracies, the ICC banned the press from all further Bicker events and information. Every one of Bicker's key decisions was made in personal anonymity and behind closed doors. The demands of the newspaper for an account of what was going on were flatly rejected, and the all-powerful ICC opperated throughout without being responsible to anyone, least of all to either the administration or the student body of the Princeton community.

Bicker reaches its colorful climax during Open House.

Seven-thirty that Saturday evening and the entire class, bathed, brushed, shined, combed, and shivering, hurries through the dark night and biting wind across the campus to Prospect Street, where the grounds of sixteen plush clubhouses--and the not-so-plush Prospect Cooperative Club--stretch before them. The luckiest ones have received several bids, and join one of the big five:

You stroll with anxious expectation across the broad lawn up to the great white columns of Colonial's porch. The door swings open and you and your group (throughout Bicker, you move in a group of three or four--you are judged, accepted, and perhaps rejected collectively) are swept into the dazzling warm uproar inside. You feel the soft depth of the rug beneath your feet and can see a bright, glittering, well-groomed haze all around you. Up the grand stairway, lined with upperclassmen clapping and cheering, until you reach the top where beaming and blushing abashedly you sign your name and receive the dark blue and red and yellow and green striped club tie from the president. A final huzzah then you and the rest turn with relish to the serious business of the evening, consuming as much alcohol as possible. Everyone is shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. It is a bacchanalian love-feast and you drink freely. You are in.

Others, the majority, must accept bids to lesser clubs, and others still must go through the agonizing process of rushing from house to house, hoping to be accepted from the second list after all their more desirable classmates have signed the books. When at last these too are in, they drink still more freely and shout more loudly--trying to forget, though they are in, how it was they got there.

The Others

And finally there are the Others--those who are "in trouble," as the euphemism goes, who must somehow be fitted in somewhere by somebody so the clubs can again point with pride to the precious statistic of 100%--"100% of those wishing to join a club did so"--the number by which alone the system can be justified. It must be able to claim the fact of 100%, no matter how often or how strangely 100% must be re-defined.

A council of the club presidents, the ICC, directs all one hundred percenters to report to the back porch of Ivy at 9:30 sharp (oh heavy irony here, on the back porch of Ivy, entering not the front door or being admitted to the parlor, but stumbling through the dark around the carousing house, and coming in through the servants' entry.)

At first they joke about their predicament (but actual tears will be shed before many hours have passed)--"I'd feel pretty bad if I didn't see so many of my friends here." Kind soft-spoken Ivy men take them aside and counsel them. Join Prospect, they gently urge (each adjusting his identical green and yellow striped tie). Join the poverty-stricken cooperative where you'll take turns waiting on your own tables and mopping the floor and be looked down upon for three years by the members of the real clubs. Join the work club, join the club for left-overs, and (ever so gently) hurry up about it, so we can show 100% and go back to the party. Resistance is firm, but in many cases gives way. Something in you resists being classified a wonk, but something deeper cries out against exile.

The Wonk

What constitutes the Princeton definition of "wonk" at Bickertime? The traits of a varied species can be most clearly grasped when combined into an extreme, idealized archetype, whose full obnoxious character each empirical individual but partially manifests and only for a brief time. To apprehend the Platonic essence, then, of the utter antithesis to the approved club type, imagine an inarticulate, introverted, morbidly shy sophomore from a small town in the provinces. He wears outlandish ties, dirty sweaters, and baggy pants. Not only lacking a crewcut, he is in bad need of a barber nearly all the time and obviously shaves but rarely. Until he arrived at the university he was educated in mediocre public schools, the whole of life to him lies in doddling with mathematics, and his idea of kicks is playing the violin. He is too undersized for athletics, has a horror, in fact, both of sports and drunken manly rough-housing, and his table manners, to put it kindly, are native. The girls he dates when he dates at all are dogs, his conversation, when he talks at all, is incessantly intellectual and hardly what the New Yorker call "sophisticated." Besides being childish ignorant of his own inadequacies and ineptitudes, moreover, he wears thick glasses, has a large nose, and is flagrantly Jewish. None of the hundred percenters on Ivy's back porch were in so repugnant a state as this; even the sorriest of them participated in only a few of the characteristics of such an ideal form, and then in an attenuated degree. But one can clearly see why a social club would only be sensible in excluding such an individual, whatever the wisdom might be of admitting him to the university, and most of the officers on Prospect Street would agree that this precisely describes the sort of man who must at all costs be kept out. It is also a fairly accurate portrait of Einstein.

Here the stigmata, the brand, the taint, are clearly seen: the error of wearing white bucks for so solemn and evening, the misdemeanor of a soft, stammering voice, the felony of too loud and sure a one, the atrocity of a blue suit, here sitting a couple of silent boys with slanted eyes and yellow skin, from here the man who was academically first in the class leaving in discouragement to join Prospect, and here, recurring nearly two times out of every three, Israel's immemorial face is seen; the class has sixteen Merit Scholars, ten were in trouble on Thursday night, and five of them, too, are here.

And when they're sure you're not an unctuous agitator for Prospect Club, they are willing to talk to you freely, gather, gather around and tell you calmly about the first fight at the meeting when Court Club decided to cut its Jewish quota in half because an unintentional influx one year was causing its prestige to flag; about what an ICC president told one of them privately and with a certain sadness one day, that "anti-Semitism in the clubs is something that can neither be exposed, nor proved, nor cured"; about the tacit and explicit demands of club alumni through the graduate boards that, though a few Jews may be admitted to every club, "they must be kept down to reasonable numbers" and that is why Prospect has so many Jews; about what a club representative had just told one of them quite frankly, "we'd like to take you but our quota on you people is filled up"; about--

The other heads abruptly part and there is suddenly only one single scowling face. The president of the sophomore class.

"Are you from the Harvard CRIMSON?"


"The ICC has voted the press completely barred here tonight. I'll have to ask you to leave."

"I'm not from the PRINCETONIAN, you know. I have nothing to with the University."

"I know that. But you'll have to leave."


"I'm not at liberty to tell you."

"Why not?"

"Get out."

Someone standing nearby begins to shout:

"If it weren't for you damn newspaper guys, we wouldn't have this mess. These people wouldn't even be here tonight."

He has on a green and yellow striped tie. Ivy man. He's right: they'd be in Prospect.

A gust of cold air, the door slams, locks, and back out again in the twelve-degree biting night wind.


"Shortly after that incident, the Princetonian reported, "the central head-quarters committee decided that too many people were on the porch without legitimate reason. They closed the doors and kept a careful tab on who went in and out. This immediately gave rise to the idea that the porch was a 'cage.' Even the men not in clubs began referring to themselves as 'cagers.'"

Around midnight, the clubs run out of liquor and every door on Prospect Street spews forth a jubilant stream of staggering sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Leaning on each other, singing, shouting, a few pausing at the gutter to retch quietly for a moment then loudly rejoining the buoyant inebriated throng, they totter off toward the campus or a cafe where they can calm down with a cup of coffee. The fraternal transport is now at its beatific height. Arm in arm they reel indifferent to traffic or the piercing cold; one lifts his hands to the frigid heavens and races down the street backwards, his scarf and topcoat wildly flapping in the wind, crying out in ecstasy, "Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord. Lord!" The unbroken tension of weeks--of a year and a half for some, has ended. Bicker is over at last, for them.

But Not for All

But on Ivy's back porch, for forty-two remaining sophomores, the suspense has reached its most pitiless climax. Since almost everyone who was inside has gone home now and the porch has long been growing chilly, the one-hundred percenters are permitted to move into the Ivy dining room. They can see the silver candelabras now and the rows of empty bottles. Prospect had electric lights and beer tonight. Somehow the number dwindles to thirty-five as the discouraging hours pass, then six give way and trudge toward Prospect, and another six are placed as a few clubs each make the sacrifice and each consent to admit one lone hundred percenter (there to be pariah or sycophant for who knows how long). Above, in the library, like secret Teutonic Norns, the ICC meets in constant absolutely closed session, omnipotently spinning fate. Below them, twenty-three one hundred percents remain, half of them Jewish. In Valhalla's lofty and concealed recesses, the list is gone over name by name: where are these to be placed?

An outsider observing Bicker finds it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. The enormous anxieties generated in every member of the sophomore class, the superficiality and downright silliness of its standards and ceremonies, the blatant injustices of the values and principles the system inculcates--all would seem ludicrous in any civilized community, but they are doubly comic when set in one of the nation's greatest universities and practiced by what is supposed to be a substantial segment of this generation's intellectual elite.


At the heart of the system, unquestioned by even the hundred percenters themselves, lies the principle of selectivity. As a member of Key and Seal expressed it, "In a democracy we are supposedly free to become as exclusive or as gregarious as we like, and if in a club situation we choose to be exclusive, this is our privilege." From that bit of casuistry--more often expressed as an innocent belief that "you've got a right to choose your friends and the guys you're going to eat with--the code of values can be relentlessly deduced which summarily condemns certain personality traits, ethnic groups, and even scholarship, intellectualism, and originality themselves per se.


As David Riesman has pointed out, apologetics as a reaction to this kind of attack is inappropriate; "It surrenders the ethical initiative, for it permits the anti-Semite to frame the issue of debate and the norms of criticism." For to deny the fact that a Jew or a grind can't come up to country-club standards, is to concede the validity of those standards.

A truly liberal education should neither teach bigotry and prejudice nor try to persuade students of the opposite lie that there are no significant differences between men in terms of personality, conventional social charm, race, or religious conviction. Its task is rather to show that these factors have nothing to do with one's ethical worth or human dignity--to help the student remold his system of values so that none of these traits are the controlling factor in evaluating another human being--to deepen and expand his vision to the point, in fact, where he rejoices in human diversity and creative individuality and actively seeks it out. Social insulation, a striving for comfortable homogeneous groups, the frank institutionalization of arbitrary and unreflective prejudices--these do not contribute to that aim. Even if the racial criterion were eliminated, the general principle of an illfounded sort of discrimination would remain as an axiom of Princeton's entire social structure.


Deeper insight than anyone has yet applied might reveal that the most unfortunate victims of Princeton's vicious Bicker process are not necessarily those scores of students who are dumped in undesirable organizations or left altogether out in the cold. Rather it is the hundreds who happily make the respectable and especially the most desirable clubs on the street. It is they who have consented without apparent compunctions to build their prestige, success, and social contentment on the hypocrisy, mendacity, inhumanity, servility, pettiness and sheer unreason upon which Princeton's club system and Bicker procedure are obviously reared. It's the oldest truth in creation that there is evil in the universe and it is as a realistic schooling in the world's folly and wickedness that Bicker is usually defended. In letting her students, after months of reading Plato and Kant, Milton and Thoreau, pass complacently through the two weeks of Bicker, Princeton may well be defeating her own highest efforts at cultivating an operative system of values, and inducing in her sons the refined sort of ethical blindness which tactfully refrains from seriously applying standards of what is right in adjusting to the realities of what merely is.

Harvard, however, has no grounds for a holier-than-thou attitude towards her younger sister in New Jersey. Woodrow Wilson, the first and greatest opponent of Princeton's club system, scribbled the following among his notes for an address in 1906: "What is the future of the Upper Class Clubs? More and more expense and only social aims or University aims? Danger that we will develop socially as Harvard did and as Yale is tending to do."

Freedom from Pestilence

Harvard's freedom today from the pestilence that still possesses Princeton should in no wise be interpreted as evidence for the stouter moral fiber of her undergraduate body compared to that encamped around Nassau Hall. It was only the House system which redeemed her--and a philosophy of education which viewed the student social structure as a primary concern and area of legitimate jurisdiction for a great university and which sought to rebuild that structure on a principle which was the inverse of selectivity: the principle of distribution within the House, geographical, academic, economic, and intellectual, with diversity of race and religion being considered relevant only insofar as they are eagerly sought after, never forming a basis for exclusion.

It was just such a goal that Wilson campaigned for, decades before President Lowell was to demand it in Cambridge. And the same elements which finally defeated him in 1908 would be sure to oppose vigorously any similar move by President Goheen to abolish the clubs fifty years later.

'Associate With a Mucker'

The alumni organized meetings of protest. One of the leading graduates of Princeton wrote to the Alumni Weekly denouncing the idea that students should be compelled to mix with their inferiors--"no one can make a gentleman associate with a mucker." In the pages of The New York Sun, an indignant letter signed "Ivy" appeared, demanding to know "Is it possible that the doctrines of the confiscation of property and the superior wisdom of those in high places which have recently been so characteristic of our political life are to be received with favour in one of the most historic and conservative of our institutions of learning?"

Then -- as now -- the overwhelming majority of the faculty favored the substitution of "the college plan" for the club system, and the great masses of Western alumni also supported Wilson's efforts.

But the Eastern alumni through the