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."

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