God and Bladderball At Yale

Yale is of two minds about itself. Some people, with persuasive sincerity, maintain that Yale is on the whole normal--different from other prestigious Ivy League colleges in degree but not in kind. Others, with no less vigor, hold that Yale has a special, feverish intensity that sets it apart from its brethren--and Yale's intensity, some say, shades over into sickness and depravity.

Everybody, including the most earnest believers in the normalcy theory, agrees on one thing, however. There is an absolute consensus, a collective obsession with the idea that Yale students work harder--harder than students at other colleges, harder than ever before, harder especially than their comrades at Harvard. Harder, certainly, than most of them want to; and harder than some consider healthy.

You hear it everywhere. Yale students talk about "academic pressure" with all the fatalism and glibness of theologians discussing the Last Judgment. "The Work" is a bottomless, ever-popular topic of conversation in the dining halls--the only topic, really, aside from occasional digressions on sexual tension and the quality of the food. "How's the work coming?" people say, and if you cannot claim at least a knotty problem set or a stubbornly complex research paper you might as well sit back and devote yourself to your stewage. Advertisements on Yale bulletin boards ask smugly, "IS THE WORK TOO MUCH?", already knowing the answer. Typists have special rates ($1.25 per page) for all-nighters. A line forms in front of Cross Campus Library at 9 o'clock Sunday morning, with hung-over students jockeying for the choicest seats; by late afternoon, places are difficult to come by. Faculty members muse publicly, as A. Bartlett Giametti did last week on the New York Times Op-Ed page, about a "relentless, pervasive tension about work." Yale students claim to work as much as 50 or 60 hours a week outside of classes. The Yale Daily News recently conducted a telephone survey of Yale and Harvard students in order to determine who worked harder. The outcome was preordained--what the News found interesting, and somewhat irritating, was the leisurely, complacent attitude of the Cantabrigians toward their work.

The disagreement about whether Yale is normal or abnormal, healthy or depraved, seems to depend on two different notions of work. On the side of healthy are people like Griffin, associate dean of Yale College, who believe it is neither surprising nor regrettable that Yale students--bright, eager and ambitious people, after all--spend a considerable amount of time doing academic work and talking about it. Griffin says that Yale students work hard these days, probably harder than students at other colleges and probably harder than past Yale students. He suspects some Yale students let their work interfere with other pursuits, some of which might themselves be worthwhile. But on the whole, he feels that most Yale students enjoy what they are doing.

Griffin analyzes academic pressure the same way everyone else does, in terms of the economic situation and the competition for admission to professional schools. He also perceives a kind of self-generated, self-perpetuating pressure to succeed, to excel. The situation he sees is one that exists everywhere these days, and he cannot explain, really, why things are so much more intense at Yale, except to say that Yale students tend to be vigorous and enthusiastic and that "it's a terrific time here."


For Griffin, the Yale work ethic is a new and constructive channeling of energies that used to be spent elsewhere. Not too long ago, he points out, people used to talk a lot about relevance and commitment, terms that "referred to political and social issues, but implied psychologically that you were implicated in what you were doing." His theory is that Yale students are still committed; it is just that they are seeking relevance in pre-med and pre-law courses.

So Griffin, like Yale administrators and faculty in general, is committed to the normalcy theory. He denies that his students are depraved--he laughs at the idea, in fact. Maybe they are anxious sometimes: "Obviously there is a lot anxiety in anything you are deeply involved in--but there is also a considerable amount of enjoyment. I have to say that it doesn't seem to affect their cheerfulness or sense of balance."

Few Yale students accept Griffin's analysis; most belong in one way or another to the abnormality school. In particular, there is a nearly unanimous sense among Yale students that they are somehow cheerless and ill-balanced--the way Harvard students feel during exam period, they feel all the time. "Actually, most people are pretty grim," one senior said last week.

"Very few people have any sense of balance at all," he went on, "Very few people are even willing to look up from the ground and recognize human presence around them."

In a perverse way, some of the academically oppressed are at their most cheerful when they are describing their lot. But if they revel in their despondency, if they take cheer from the perpetual exam-period pallor that hovers over the Yale campus, many students worry also that Yale is going to leave them less than whole.

The feeling is that there must be a trade-off somewhere. Every hour devoted to learning something academic--and Yale students do believe they learn a certain amount--is an hour during which one loses sight of another side of life. Students say they are "crippled" emotionally; they never learn to deal with other people. Some say the constant, overbearing compulsion to work leaves scars, scars that do not always show. A few talk of leaving Yale as "eunuchs."

It seems to be true that a certain amount of sexual activity is sacrificed in propitiation of the academic gods. Yale has a normal portion of conversation about the possibilities of romantic love, but it also has a certain amount of cynicism about a social life centered in an underground library. Most people take for granted a connection between celibacy and scholarship--a routine refrain as students leave the dining room is, "Well, I'm off to sublimate."

Whether sublimation gives way to repression and release gives way to depravity is another question. Many Yale students, especially underclassmen, agree with Dean Griffin that depravity is rare. Nevertheless, there are signs.

The bladderball game, for example. This is a form of sport in which three or four thousand Yalies lock themselves inside the Old Campus with a huge canvas ball. There appears to be no object to it except to immerse oneself in a surging tide of flesh, heaving violently in one direction after another in pursuit of the ball. The specter of academic pressure seems to preside over this activity, as it does over every activity at Yale. Last year the bladderball was removed to Kingman Brewster's lawn and, while the president of Yale stood on his porch, drink in hand, the nearly spent bladderballers chanted "Thirty-Two! Thirty-Two! Thirty-Two!..." They were referring to the number of courses they would like to be required to take instead of the present minimum of thirty-six. After fumbling for an appropriate response, President Brewster raised his glass in wordless salute and returned inside.

This year, a contingent from Jonathan Edwards College accidently punctured the bladderball during an attempt to seize it with a grappling hook. Later they brought it down to Cross Campus Library, where they tried to put it on closed reserve. (They Yale Spelunking Club subsequently retaliated by temporarily cutting the power in Jonathan Edwards at 3 a.m., thus causing JE residents with electric alarm clocks to be a half hour late for their morning classes.)