Do you want to be successful?
Form a club!
Are your chances quite distressful?
Form a club!
Never mind the common friendships
That no politician has!
Seek the really righteous rounders
And the athletes of the class!
And you’ll get your heart’s desiring—
And the rest will get the raz!
Form a club!
—“Song at which all good News Editors Shudder,” Stephen Vincent Benét and J. F. Carter, 19171
Yale College in 2017 is a very different place from the college of 1832 when the senior society system was birthed, but perhaps not so different from the college of a century before where Stephen Vincent Benét and his roommate could poke fun at the Yalies’ propensity to form new organizations when old ones were, for any reason, deemed insufficient.
Over four-tenths of the undergraduate population today consists of minority students, and the Yale dean of admissions makes an Asian recruiting trip to Mumbai, Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.2 As of fall 2014, Yale College’s student body was 49 percent of minority descent, including 11 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 23 percent Asian, and 3 percent Native American. Today, white American males comprise only just over a quarter of Yale’s undergraduates. The profile of the class that will graduate in 2019 is markedly different since the millennium. Chosen from over 30,000 applicants, the 1,364 enrolled freshmen and women came from forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and sixty other countries; approximately one-seventh were first generation college students, two-thirds received financial assistance, and only just over a tenth of them had any legacy affiliation. Fully six-tenths hailed from public schools, only four-tenths were white, and the male /female ratio was 51 to 49.3
The composition of the senior societies’ membership today reflects this change, but more surprising to their decades of detractors would be their sheer numbers: there are at least forty-seven, their names noted in an annual Yale Daily News announcement signed by all of them. This sets forth the dates of that year’s Tap Week and Tap Night; the ground rules for election offers (only within Tap Week, no “exploding” offers which expire, and no acceptance to be binding until Tap Night begins); the dates when interviews may begin (now starting in February); and, as required by the Connecticut Hazing Law, a mutual pledge that all acts of hazing are understood to be strictly forbidden.4
As the result of an initiative by a former Yale College Council president, seven new societies were created for the class of 2016 (some, like Ring and Candle, revived from decades before and funded by their alumni), to make the society system even more inclusive,5 with the result that more than half the seniors in Yale College are now in senior societies, still secret as to membership and, for most, meeting place. The proliferation of societies has led to less reverence for the system overall, but when the junior class council of 2015 invited the class’s members by email to opt out of the election process, only twelve of some thirteen hundred juniors decided against participating in the process.6
In 1982, Timothy Dwight College master Thomas Bergin of the class of 1925 recalled a conversation that he had had with his contemporary, Bonesman and Time magazine founder Henry Luce of the class of 1920. What was the point, Luce inquired of Bergin, of the underground secret societies that had appeared on campus after World War II? “I replied,” Bergin wrote, “that the undergraduates recognized the desirability of the intimate association offered by the traditional senior secret societies, but many felt that they were too blatantly ‘prestigious.’ Luce responded, ‘What the hell is wrong with prestige?’ His was, I think, the authentic voice of old Yale.”7
In a college which since Kingman Brewster’s presidency in the 1960s explicitly sought to admit “leaders” in all fields of endeavor, the undergraduates in the new Yale elevated diversity over prestige, and the private exchanges of trust and revelations (Bergin’s “desirability of the intimate association”) over public promotion for demonstrated campus leadership. Leadership was still rewarded by the societies—the Bones clubs of 2013 and 2015, for example, included Rhodes scholars, both women, one a varsity track star and the other the managing editor of the News. But that personal talent had not, for decades now, been the best indicator of probable membership.
After the century’s turn, the mystique of the senior societies intermittently continued to fascinate the non-Yale world, from the sphere of low culture to that of high politics. This broad spectrum ran from the release of the Skulls film trilogy of thrillers8 through the 2004 presidential contest, which matched against one another two Bonesmen, George W. Bush (class of 1968) and John Kerry (1966), from an organization with only eight hundred living members (one contemporaneous commentary in the New York Times, recalling a legend of its rituals, was titled “Nude Wrestling? Good Practice for Politics”).9
When founded in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Yale secret societies had no external purpose, but only the internal one of self-education: the founders of Skull and Bones created a program to teach themselves extemporaneous speech, unavailable in the standard curriculum of the day, and those of Berzelius to learn European science that they were not being taught by their scientific school professors. These societies’ successors and imitators for a half century invented variations on such formal programs. Nevertheless, the sheer intimacy of groups of fifteen and the two long evenings each week they were together led, within a few decades thereafter, into sessions of personal revelation and examination, the primary thematic program of most of them today.10 This marks their primary difference from Harvard’s final clubs and Princeton’s eating clubs, as well as more prosaic and quotidian college organizations like fraternities and sororities.
Their critics in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth were right to criticize them for exclusivity—how could it be otherwise when they took in, until modern times, much less than a quarter of the undergraduates?—and for the demonstrated arrogance and perceived rudeness that often followed in exclusivity’s wake. But it is historically demonstrable that striving for society membership through competing for campus organization leadership positions produced for the growing republic, over time, literally hundreds of national leaders in politics, business, academia, medicine, and literature.
It is also well founded that the electing seniors within the societies, as well as those passed over, worried about the charge of exclusivity, and balancing it with their own sense of electoral fairness and student-mandated standards of achievement, blended ambition with democracy. They tapped for their exclusive groups social castes barred from entry into the uppermost reaches of American society, long before their elders in the Yale administration—and similarly in the United States—elevated Jews, blacks, gays, and women to similar positions of prominence, whether on the campus or in the nation.
Their vociferous critics were unmindful of this largely hidden history (a woman News columnist in 1985 imagined that “if someone gained access to the annual pictures of the three all-male societies, up until the last few years the members would probably all look alike—with a few token Jewish-looking men scattered here and there if one were lucky,”11 when Jews and blacks had been elected in mounting numbers for half a century). Their detractors in the post-1960s hammered the societies for their small membership, their private tombs, their accumulated wealth, and their refusal to admit guests, demanding the fulfillment of purposes of social service, philanthropy, and public entertainment to which the societies never aspired, and which none of them had ever promised to anyone.
It is no wonder that the senior societies largely withdrew, where they could, from campus notice, except for the undisguisable presence of their provoking, windowless tombs, and the announcement of their annual elections. Their respective “secrets” of internal names and hidden rituals are now largely known or otherwise discoverable, for those that care to inquire across the public records of the last 180 years, but the interior life of the annual delegations, the intangibles in which they truly traffic, in privacy as well as secrecy, are still familiar only to their initiates, and living this life is clearly seen as desirable in the Yale College of today.