I wrote this article in the fall of 2008, shortly after I graduated, when I was much preoccupied with the question of meritocracy and the proper role of schools like Yale. My editor at Culture 11 declined to publish this draft, then the site went under and the piece was abandoned. I think I posted the text to my personal blog at some point—or I just emailed it to friends, I can’t remember. Either way, a handful of people saw it. But I can’t find any trace of it now, even in the CSB archives, so I’ll publish it here, partly so people can read it but mostly so I can cite a few lines of it in my forthcoming response [UPDATE: The response is up, here] to this excellent post critiquing some of the points I made in my previous argument for why the meritocracy deserves to be smashed to bits. I still stand by the sentiments expressed here, but please forgive any signs of immaturity in the prose. I did write it four years ago.
There’s an old joke about a Southerner who went to Yale. She walks into a bar back home in Mississippi, and the good ol’ boy next to her figures she’s a student and asks, “Where do you go to school?”
“Yale,” she says, but it sounds more like “Yay-ull.”
“OKAY,” he shouts. “WHERE DO YOU GO TO SCHOOL?”
The girl in the joke could be me. Born in Mississippi and raised in North Carolina, I grew up thinking of Yale as the place where I could shake the Southern dust from my feet and settle in among the book-learned. I spent the summer before freshman year wondering which characters from Woody Allen movies my roommates would most resemble. I fretted over which books would most intrigue them. I bought a tweed jacket.
Two months after I arrived in New Haven, the Yale of my imagination was still not in evidence. I saw seven a cappella groups at the extracurriculars bazaar, but no poetry clubs, and there wasn’t much in the way of high-minded discussion around the dorms either. My classmates struck me as high-achieving, but only in the most generic way: student body presidents, not aspiring philosopher-kings.
My expectations going in had just as much to do with style as the life of the mind, and, to be honest, I probably would have been satisfied if more of my fellow freshmen had dropped cheap allusions to the “rosy-fingered dawn” or known the rules to canasta. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, sophistication is the tribute ignorance pays to intellect.
As it was, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my ideas of Yale, both academic and cultural, would have to be adjusted.
Then I discovered the Yale Political Union—“the nation’s oldest political debating society”—and all the Ivy League exoticism I’d ever wanted. Speakers held forth on elevated subjects. At my first debate one man threw a blistering insult at the speaker that began with the phrase “Is it not in fact the case that.” (This turned out to be parliamentary procedure; I thought he was just being gentlemanly.) One young man not only knew what an ascot was but was wearing one.
Here were the elites of New England, I thought, no doubt ready to lay claim to their own Greenwich estates and summer places in the Hamptons. The more I learned about the Union, though, the more I saw the truth behind the trappings: practically no one in the Union hails from the ruling class. The undergraduate board’s current officers are middle-class kids from Montana, Kentucky, and Colorado. The current Union president is an Oklahoman. Last fall’s was a Kansan. The closest thing the current board has to an authentic blue blood is one poor soul from Westport.
I didn’t really mind that they lacked genealogical bona fides—every American has a constitutional right to go Gatsby if he wants to—but I was disappointed to discover that, for the most part, Union members only played Old Yale one night a week. Outside the debate hall, they were like the people I had met in my first two months: smart, but not pursued by Furies; aware of themselves as an academic elite, but not as a social (or economic) one.
They behaved unlike intellectuals, and equally unlike aristocrats whose family names might follow “You’re a” and precede “so behave like one!” – a different kind of elite with nothing but high school achievement for common ground. As Mary McCarthy put it, they knew Henry James but Henry James would never have consented to know them.
I came to Yale looking to find either a broad community of scholars or Brideshead Revisited and ended up disappointed on both counts.
And a good thing, too.