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Quarrels with Providence
During the winter of 1992 Yale University was passing through one of its periodic seasons of discontent, and the general run of newspaper headlines seeping out of New Haven supported the impression of a once-high citadel of ancient learning reduced to a hollow ruin. The dean of the College departed in February, apparently in protest over the disrespect being shown to the relics of Western civilization, and in March the provost was forced to resign by a resentful faculty whose salaries he had attempted to eliminate or decrease; the Gay and Lesbian Alliance was posting manifestos on the classroom doors.
As a graduate of Yale I read the reports with more attention than I might have brought to similar dispatches from Harvard or Brown, and it wasn’t as if I’d expected the news to be good. For at least ten years, I had been listening to various members of the New York literary crowd tell travelers’ tales about going to Yale to speak to the undergraduates and finding a lost world overgrown with the weeds of multicultural ignorance and cant, the groves of academe strangled with the vines of political correctness. Most of the correspondents added to the burden of the University’s sorrows the sum of the crime and poverty in the city of New Haven. If it wasn’t prudent to utter the name of Aristotle within 1,000 yards of Harkness Tower, neither was it altogether safe to walk after dark beyond the perimeter of the walled courtyards without the protection of the campus police.
Even so, and contrary to the prevailing opinion, I assumed that matters probably were not as grim as they could be made to seem in eight-point type. I knew enough about the troubles in progress at most of the country’s institutions of higher learning to know that money was always short, the faculty often restive, and the students usually glad of the chance to parade their virtue. But in the second week of April I received a letter from Benno Schmidt, then the President of Yale, prompting me to think that the confusion around the tables down at Mory’s was a good deal worse than maybe I had inferred. The letter surprised me because Schmidt apparently had gone to the trouble of typing it himself, on a plain sheet of paper unadorned with the University’s seal. Never before had I received any communication from a Yale President other than the annual requests, handsomely printed on heavy stationery, for sums of money so far beyond my means that I seldom read the second sentence. And yet here was Schmidt, addressing me as a “valued alumnus and particular friend of Yale,” inviting me to New Haven in a month’s time to attend a fund-raising event that he billed as a “fanfare” for $1.5 billion, promising band music, a multimedia slide show, and viewings of the Gutenberg Bible.
Although pleased to have been summoned to so grand an occasion, I figured that a secretary in Woodbridge Hall had made a mistake with one of the alumni lists. My connection to the College was as tenuous as my acquaintance with Schmidt. It was true that I was a member of the Class of 1956; true also that I once had taught a seminar in Calhoun College on the art of reading newspapers. But I didn’t go to the Harvard games and knew as little about the disputes within the English department as I knew about the triumphs of the University’s bond portfolio or the sorrows of its fencing team. From my graduation I had carried away none of the memorabilia likely to certify my standing as an Old Blue, and if by no reach of anybody’s imagination could I be classified as a valued alumnus or particular friend of Yale, I assumed that my induction into the company of the elect meant that an alarmingly large number of the University’s more reliable patrons had either moved to Switzerland or died intestate.
On reaching New Haven late on the afternoon of May 2, I half expected to find the students pushing wheel barrows filled with the plaster remnants of Greco-Roman portrait busts, but the once-familiar buildings were much as I’d left them in the spring of 1956—somehow smaller than I’d remembered but otherwise unharmed, and among the several hundred alumni gathered for the fanfare in Woolsey Hall the mood was upbeat and exuberant. Schmidt bounded out onto the stage in a burst of strobe light, boyish and grinning and eager to please, and when he said that Yale had received—“this very afternoon”—$50 million given by Paul Mellon ’29 for the Center for British Art, the audience responded with loud applause. Five outsized television screens behind the stage then began to blink on and off like neon signs, and for the next 50 minutes the multimedia slide show ran through a fast-paced series of images—teachers teaching, students studying, coaches coaching—while five soundtracks supplied a medley of College songs. At syncopated intervals the screens went dark, and in the shadows on stage right or stage left a single spotlight came to rest on the solitary figure of a venerable professor or worthy alumnus—the designated proofs of Lux et Veritas revealed as living sculpture. Jaroslav Pelikan, one of Yale’s most eminent historians and a former dean of the Graduate School, appeared in the light clutching a battered leather briefcase (symbol of the higher learning); Calvin Trillin ’57, noted humorist and member of the Corporation, performed a comic monologue; a young English professor read a poem by Archibald MacLeish ’15; the Whiffenpoofs sang the “Whiffenpoof Song.” Lights flashed, music sounded, other luminaries came and went, and at the end of the hour Schmidt assembled everybody on the stage in an impromptu chorus line. Swaying from side to side, their arms linked around one another’s shoulders, they led the audience in the singing of “Bright College Years,” and in keeping with long-established custom the alumni waved white handkerchiefs to the slowing tempo of the closing lines, “For God, for country, and for Yale.”
Heartened by the sentiment and glad to have remembered all the words, the crowd moved through the rotunda to the cocktail reception in Commons, where five gigantic figures in papier mache, each of them at least 20 feet high, stood in triumphant procession among the buffet tables and smoking pillars of dry ice. A dance band was playing the songs of Cole Porter ’13, and for about 20 seconds I thought I had walked into a fraternity party at the old DKE house that somehow had managed to remain in progress for the past 37 years. From a bartender I learned that the papier mache figures were meant to represent five of the nine Muses, but they looked like portly 19th-century railroad magnates rather than the dancers on a Greek vase, and he thought that they had been salvaged from the set of a Hollywood epic about the collapse of either (the bartender didn’t know which) the Roman or the British Empire.
I didn’t see anybody whom I knew by name, but the faces conformed to a familiar type—well cared for and successful—and the genial din of small talk—about the stock market (up 30 points), golf courses in Scotland (less crowded in the spring than in the fall), the weather in Paris (unseasonably cold)—filled the immense room with a buoyant and expansive sound. Despite the rumors of academic calamity, the University was famously in the news in May of 1992, the sons and daughters of Eli advancing on every front, winning political office and academic prizes, adding to America’s stores of wealth and knowledge. George Bush ’48 was president of the United States, and Fay Vincent ’64 was commissioner of baseball. Three candidates for the summer Democratic presidential nomination (Edmund G. Brown Jr. ’64LLB, a former governor of California, Senator Paul Tsongas ’67LLB of Massachusetts, and Governor Bill Clinton ’73JD of Arkansas) had attended the Yale Law School; so had Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the newly-appointed Supreme Court justice and the woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct. Jodie Foster ’84 was renowned in Hollywood both as an actress and a director, Garry Trudeau ’70, ’73MFA, had promoted “Doonesbury” to the ranks of national celebrity, and David McCullough ’55 recently had published what soon was to become a best-selling biography of Harry Truman.
As the evening wore on, the vodka giving out and the musicians playing a third and fourth reprise of “You’re the Top,” the tenor of the conversation proved a good deal less complacent than it had seemed on first hearing. A senior historian observed that faculty opinion of President Schmidt fluctuated between ridicule and scorn; a tenured professor of political science confided the information that the University had lowered its intellectual standards to “impermissible levels of mediocrity”; a young teaching assistant, scowling and deconstructionist, introduced himself as “an agent behind enemy lines in the French department,” implacably opposed to the “factory-like conditions” under which he was forced to correct undergraduate essays on Pascal.
The alumni cherished a good many grievances of their own, and although by and large pleased with Schmidt’s defense of the University’s cash positions, they worried about the stories in the newspapers and the damage being done to Yale’s reputation. A once-upon-a-time chairman of the Yale Daily News wanted to know whether I’d walked around the College lately, and, if so, whether I’d noticed the kids with rings in their noses. He attributed the outrage to the fact that the University was being run by the Bob Dylan people, aging student activists grown up to become professors of ideological nonsense. A former captain of the hockey team said that his son had refused to consider applying to Yale because he was “a conservative kid, still heavily into male chauvinism,” which was maybe a little immature of him but something that couldn’t be helped, at least not in Indianapolis, and he just wasn’t about to go to college with a lot of New York City balletomanes making fun of him because he had worked as a campaign volunteer for Dan Quayle and didn’t know the difference between dead flowers and potpourri.
As I listened to the charges being brought against dwindling verbal aptitudes and declining moral standards, I wondered what it was that the plaintiffs expected of Yale. Here were people accustomed to having their way with the world and who owned much of what was worth owning in the United States on May 2, 1992, and yet something had spoiled their hope of the College’s future. Why the sense of loss—past, present and impending? Why were so many people talking about the canon of the great books, or, for that matter, about the uses of the liberal arts?
Sterling Memorial Library was still reassuringly intact, the Whiffenpoofs commendably in tune, and if most American college students didn’t know how to diagram a compound sentence or tell the difference between an adverb and an adjective, the same could be said of most American tax lawyers and television anchorpersons. As at most other seats of higher American learning, the students studied the arts of getting ahead in the world, acquiring the keys to the commercial kingdom that bestows its rewards on the talent for figuring a market, not on a knowledge of Thucydides. Why then the preoccupation with the humanities, and why expect deliverance at the hands of medieval historians and professors of Latin verse?
By the time I’d left the reception, the carillon in Harkness Tower was striking the hour of 11, and glancing upward at the sudden sound, I remembered that on the level of the bells, 170 feet above the Branford lawn, the stonemasons in 1921 had carved four allegorical figures representing the four careers recommended to the sons of Mother Yale—the church, business, medicine, and the law. The lesson in Protestant stone rested on the premise that it was Yale’s duty to set the examples of American virtue and recruit the membership of an American ruling class, and I understood that between the lines of the evening’s anxious talk about falling SAT scores and Cicero’s absence from Linsly-Chittenden, the subject under review was the validity of the University’s license to issue the warrants of moral character and spiritual worth. No matter what was being taught in the classroom, Yale was still in the business of shaping what its deans and development office construed as “the nation’s leaders,” still issuing the tickets of admission to the ranks of social and executive privilege. But what kind of leadership class? Made out of what kind of material, to what specifications and to whose design? In the image of George Bush? Or more along the lines of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill? Or maybe on the model of Garry Trudeau and Jodie Foster? The questions clearly troubled quite a few of the alumni milling around the pillars of dry ice, and their disappointment had less to do with the sweet remembrance of carefree youth than with the passing of a world that somehow was more orderly and well-behaved, more neatly bound by the rules of decorum, less cynical and more willing to salute the flags of schoolboy romance.
Three weeks later Benno Schmidt abruptly resigned the Presidency, failing to inform the Yale Corporation of his departure until the morning of the graduation ceremonies for the Class of 1992. Institutions as venerable as Yale ordinarily arrange the comings and goings of senior management with considerable care, the press releases staged in a sequence indicative of sound judgment, good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day. The manner of Schmidt’s exit produced the antithesis of that impression, and the national news media stayed with the story throughout the months of June and July, adding further proofs to their winter theorem of Yale’s imminent collapse. The journals of conservative political opinion enlarged upon their beloved themes of cultural decline and fall, and at New York cocktail parties on the literary left the consensus of every evening’s wisdom held that Yale had never been a match for Harvard, never anything other than a Peter Arno cartoon and an empty raccoon coat. The summer’s small talk on Connecticut lawns and Long Island beaches offered further annotations of the same text—all standards lost, nothing sacred, Lux et Veritas a bitter joke—and by the first week in September I’d taken the case for Yale’s defense.
So much of what was being said seemed to me so plainly wrong, or at least so sharply at odds with what I remembered of my years as an undergraduate, that if in April I hadn’t counted myself a particular friend of Yale, five months later I knew that I held it in a far more affectionate regard than I previously had guessed. I associated it with the play of ideas and the love of language, with lessons on the harpsichord and a senior thesis submitted in the form of a canto by Ezra Pound, with an afternoon spent listening to Thornton Wilder ’20 address a set of observations on the fate of the modern novel to a very large and amiable balloon that he had brought back from the Danbury Fair. Not once in four years did I meet a Harvard student who could sit in on a conversation improvised at Yale. Harvard students knew the words, never the music. Then as now, the Harvard turn of mind tended to produce sophisticated apologetics for the party of things-as-they-are; the dissenting spirit at Yale usually voted with the party of things-as-they-might-become, and it occurred to me, 36 years after the fact, that the trajectory of my own life had followed from my four-year sojourn in New Haven, that if I’d gone to Harvard probably I would have become a lawyer, if to Princeton, an ornithologist or an investment banker. The recognition encouraged me to talk to a New York publisher about possibly writing a history of the College, if for no other reason than to refute the remark about the raccoon coat.
For the next six months I pursued a course of unsystematic study, reading around in the memoirs of alumni both famous and obscure, thumbing through the standard histories and back issues of the Yale Daily News, also through old yearbooks, faculty memoranda, novels, and short stories in which Yale provided the setting for the young hero’s awakening to the world’s ambiguity and grief, toasts raised to the glory of a boat race won in record time, essays composed by Yale presidents defining the College’s mission to an always darkening world. By the end of the year I understood that in broad outline the history of Yale divided, like the academic year and Caesar’s Gaul, into three parts.
Founded by ministers at Saybrook in 1701 as a vessel of the true Puritan faith, the College undertook “to supply the churches of this colony with a learned and pious and orthodox ministry.” The need was felt to be urgent because the graduates of Harvard, the only other college in New England at the time, were going forth into the American wilderness without the proper mandate of Heaven. Transferred to New Haven in 1716, Yale for the next 140 years retained the character of the small church school that Bishop George Berkeley in 1731 had seen as an “academy for dissenters.breeding the best clergymen and most learned” of any in America. Toward the end of the 19th century the direction of the College’s affairs and the appointment of its President passed out of the hands of Congregationalist ministers and into those of the newly-minted captains of industry and finance, and between the years 1885 and 1960 the faculty replaced the lessons in Christian doctrine with studies in the liberal arts meant to introduce the sons and heirs of great fortune to the attitudes appropriate to the members of the country’s commercial aristocracy. The curriculum and the assumptions of privilege remained comfortably in place through the first half of what Henry Luce ’20 titled “The American Century,” but soon after the Second World War the rearrangement of the seating plan everywhere else in American society induced Yale College to transform itself into what was known in the jargon of the day as a “multi-versity.” The term escaped precise definition by even its most fervent advocates, but by 1970 it was clear that what most people had in mind was an academy for careerists, open to women as well as men and geared to the production of a ministerial elite, still pious and orthodox, but secular in spirit and corporate by inclination.
If I could have forced myself to read through the texts in an orderly way, in chronological sequence or somehow alphabetically by author and/or subject, I might have found it easier to discover the clear line of the Yale narrative. But I never could avoid the traps of digression, and I kept taking note of stray facts for no reason other than my liking for them—Cotton Mather advising the Rector of Yale College to forbid public commencements because they entailed the consumption of plum cake, which was “very expensive and an occasion for much sin”; New Haven noted for the invention of the Blue Laws and the hamburger; the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher handing out Sharps rifles to student abolitionists in the 1850s in order that they might add to the body count of pro-slavery enthusiasts in Kansas; the first football game against Harvard played in the autumn prior to Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn; the Beinecke Library in possession of the bullet that killed Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar.
During the same months that I was rummaging through the card catalogs in the Sterling Library, Yale was seeking a successor to Benno Schmidt, and I often ran across members of the faculty who wanted to talk about the characteristics desirable in a President of Yale. Almost always they based their hopes for the future on their recollection of a near or distant past, and the enormous canvas of their collective memory again reminded me of the difficulties placed in the way of accurately portraying a college that welcomed so much contradiction and encouraged among its graduates so many definitions of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
On the topic of the Yale President nobody was without a strong opinion—among the 30-odd alumni with whom I raised the question, at least five had put forward their own names for the position—but with regard to the distinctive temperament and genius of the College none could match the authority of George W. Pierson ’26. Then in his 88th year, nearly deaf and all but blind, Pierson had been chairman of the history department when I was an undergraduate, but before going to see him in early March of 1993 I knew him only by reputation—Emeritus professor, author of a two-volume history of Yale and two studies of Tocqueville, collateral descendant of the Reverend Abraham Pierson, who in 1701 had served as the first Rector of the College that its founders in their more transcendent moments construed as “a school for prophets.” Expecting a reminiscence both learned and benign, the record of Yale’s achievement recalled with a nostalgic tranquillity as mild as the tea at the Elizabethan Club, I was surprised to meet instead with a fiercely passionate defense of what Pierson regarded as the integrity of the university (any university, but most especially Yale) in a society all too willing to abandon its faith in the strength and freedom of the human mind.
It was a cold day with snow in the forecast, and Pierson’s 18th-century wooden farmhouse 15 miles north of New Haven didn’t make many concessions to comfort or the weather. Furnished in the plain New England manner (small rooms, a planked floor, nothing in the way of frivolous ornament) the house over the span of 250 years had acquired a modern kitchen and a large collection of books, but in no other particular would it have displeased the 17th-century Puritan wife whose portrait, severe and very faintly smiling, presided over the conversation from the wall above the fireplace.
Pierson had anticipated the questions that I was bound to ask, and he had prepared a brief lecture on the history of Yale, its place in the American scheme of things, the continuity of its long-abiding purpose, its recent loss of confidence, and the odds (heavy and unfavorable) against its intellectual rescue. We sat in wing-backed chairs placed opposite one another in an attitude of formal address, Pierson wearing a rumpled tweed suit and a woolen sweater. He spoke for about an hour, often pausing to peer at his notes through spectacles as thick as magnifying glasses, occasionally interrupting himself to ask if I was following the line of argument.
What concerned him was the loss of the University’s soul, or, as his God-fearing ancestor might have put it, the trespass of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil on what was once the holy ground of academic sovereignty. Observing that universities had been self-governing institutions long before the invention of any of the political systems presently at large among the nations of the earth, he reminded me that the idea of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge was old enough to have survived monarchy, despotism, oligarchy, socialism, democracy, and the church. He wasn’t so sure that it could withstand the power of the corporate state backed by the doctrines of egalitarianism.
The premises of the university, Pierson said, didn’t match the trend and temper of the times. Universities were about the past; America was about next week. Literary studies were by definition elitist and impractical; America was about technical innovation and examinations graded on a curve. It was in the nature of democratic societies to resent exhibitions of superior intelligence and to mistrust any play of mind that didn’t attach itself to a fortune-bearing result.
Not that as Americans we ever had been overly fond of history or the uses of the past. During the 18th and 19th centuries the country was as grasping of the jackpot future as it was in the 20th century, but the ruling elites at least had the wit to know that their commercial voyages required some sort of moral and intellectual ballast in the hold, and for nearly 300 years they had sustained Yale as an institution independent of the state wherein to teach “faith in God, belief in man, the value of learning, the importance of character—without wealth, without luxury, without arrogance.” More recently, however, Yale, like every other college in the country, had pawned its freedoms for the grace and favor of public money. The transaction obliged the College to teach what other people wished it to teach, imposing on it “the kind of servitude that one expects of Latin American universities, where everything is politics and nothing means anything except what the politicians say it means.” Which was a serious loss because Yale was “a damn fine place … among the best in America,” and one to which “the nation owes a hell of a lot more than it knows.”
The sudden edge of anger in his voice caused Pierson to look up from his notes and ask again whether I was taking his points. Did I have any idea of how large was the debt the country owed to Yale?
No, I said, it hadn’t occurred to me to do the math.
“You should do so,” he said, “you would find it worth your trouble.”
He had worked out the numbers in another of his books, The Education of American Leaders, in which he had compiled lists of Yale College graduates who had founded colleges, been elected to Congress, served on the Supreme Court, made important discoveries in the sciences, contributed to the well-being of the nation. His figures suggested that among the people pre-eminent in the country’s major occupations over the course of the 20th century, roughly 9 percent had acquired some part of their educations at Harvard, 7 percent at Yale, 4 percent at Princeton, and not as much as 2 percent from any other university.
Pierson glared at me over his spectacles until he was satisfied that I appreciated the scale of the achievement, especially for so small a school, and then he proceeded to tell me why the same percentages weren’t likely to carry forward into the 21st century. The society didn’t count on its statesmen or its movie stars to have read Milton or Shakespeare, and the corporations inclined to hire Yale graduates didn’t make important distinctions between students who had read Montaigne and those who had studied the complete works of Gloria Steinem. If the kids knew how to run the computers, work up the punchlines for Disney or Goldman Sachs, figure the exchange rates between German deutschmarks and the Japanese yen, what did it matter what they knew or didn’t know of or about the liberal arts?
The social orders founded first on the Protestant church and then on the pillars of commerce had given way to a managerial elite loyal to nothing other than its own ambition. In place of what was once a library and a community of scholars, Pierson said, we have “the self-help university,” the “short-order university,” the “social-prestige university” pandering to every minority interest and political subtext capable of lobbying the development office—the students free to set their own curricula, courses designed to the specifications of a marketing study, Homer taught in English instead of Greek. If the country’s possessing classes no longer assigned a high value to the search for possibly unwelcome truth, then on what principle did a university—Yale or Harvard or any other—think it could stand its ground?
“The totalitarians and the egalitarians,” Pierson said, “are very much alike … Define the public interest as your own, and you can usurp anything you choose to usurp.”
Within the allotted hour he’d brought his lecture around to its point of origin; turning over the last page of his notes, he looked at his watch and asked if I had questions. We talked for maybe another 20 minutes, Pierson suggesting several books that I might find useful, and then he accompanied me to the door that was fastened with an iron latch as old as everything else in the house. For a moment we stood together on the front step, considering the first, tentative flakes of what looked like the preamble to a heavy snowfall. Pierson smiled and reminded me that he was a historian with a conservative turn of mind, so conservative that in 1967 he had been one of the few members of the Yale faculty to speak against the admission of women students. Historians, he said, were never much good at foretelling the future, but from what he could judge of the tide of events, American colleges were like ships caught in the same current, some more obviously helpless than others, some steering across or against the wind, but all drifting toward certain destruction on a lee shore.
Eight months earlier, and I might have mistaken Pierson’s testimony as another despairing communique from what were then being billed as “The Culture Wars.” For 15 years the chorus of public scolds on the conservative and neo-conservative right had been worrying about America’s torn moral fabric, deploring the high incidence of illiteracy, the practice of abortion, Hollywood pornography. The voices were nearly always shrill, the demerits handed down in the manner of indignant complaints about the traffic or the towel service.
Pierson was talking about something else, in a voice that was neither indignant nor shrill, and by March of 1993 I’d read enough of the Yale text to have become acquainted with both its character and tone in the writings of Jonathan Edwards and Jeremiah Day; also in Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale, the autobiographies of David Dellinger, Wilmarth Lewis, and William Sloane Coffin Jr.; in William F. Buckley Jr.’s God and Man at Yale and the essays of A. Whitney Griswold and A. Bartlett Giamatti. The school for prophets rejoiced in the preaching of sermons, and apparently it had been doing so for 300 years.
The book that my publisher had in mind, comprehensive and abundantly footnoted, proved to exceed my capacities as a scholar. But I was slow to give up the proposition, and during the interval between Benno Schmidt’s resignation in May 1992 and my own 40th reunion in June 1996, I continued to read through the college histories, to talk to various well-informed alumni, and in the spring of 1994 to travel to New Haven once a week to teach an undergraduate English class. Although too easily tempted into aimless digression, and usually lost in what I learned to regard as the maze of the library’s Manuscripts and Archives room, I did at least come to understand that Pierson had been improvising on a traditional theme; so had the alumni wandering through the iced smoke in Commons.
During the first 150 years of America’s colonial expedition, the sermon—especially the jeremiad—served as the principal means of literary expression among the faithful settled in the New Jerusalem. To write was to preach, and the booksellers in Boston and Philadelphia stocked in devout quantity the travelers’ guides to perdition. Preachers ascending the pulpit affected the gesture of rubbing hideous sights from their eyes, as if they couldn’t believe the extent of the folly and wickedness to which, reluctantly, they bore witness. To the Puritan divines who established Yale College in what was then the poorest of the Northern colonies, the world was not the world unless it was coming rapidly to an end. In like manner among their academic heirs and spiritual assigns, Yale was not Yale unless it was going rapidly to the dogs. The College from its beginning had been engaged in a quarrel with Providence, the faculty and students given to taking up the questions of conscience with a degree of intensity that met its early 18th-century standards of “declamation, oratory, and disputation.” They understood the jeremiad as a means of converting weakness into strength, the preacher seeking to instill in the congregants a sense of doom sufficient to make of their fear the engine of their salvation.
It was Cotton Mather’s dispute with Harvard that provoked him to assist with the founding of a College in Connecticut more strictly conformed to the teachings of John Calvin. The Massachusetts Bay Colony had lapsed into the heresy of tolerating some of the weak-minded doctrines of the Anglican church, and seeking to prevent the spread of the infection into southern New England, Mather instructed his agents in London to find money for a College built on rock instead of sand. His agents discovered Elihu Yale, a rich merchant long in years and short of heirs. Yale had been born in Boston and had lived briefly in America before amassing a fortune as the East India Company’s Viceroy in Madras, and in January 1718 Mather wrote to him with the offer of a naming opportunity. The deal closed in August—the endowment arriving in the form of nine bales of East India goods, a collection of 417 books (among them Seneca’s tragedies and Jeremy Taylor’s Doctrine of Repentance), and a portrait of George I. A week prior to the September commencement (the one at which Mather had advised against the reckless serving of plum cake), the assembled clergymen bestowed the name of Yale College on what was then the only building on what is now the Old Campus. The faculty consisted of the Rector and two tutors; the students, between the ages of 14 and 17, were taught “to know God and Jesus Christ and answerably to lead a Godly and sober life.” Their daily regimen didn’t allow for much straying from the path of righteousness—up at 5:30 a.m. for prayers in chapel, bread and beer for breakfast in Commons, more prayers, a long day’s study of the Bible (the students required to speak to one another in Latin), again to chapel for evening prayers, and so to bed by the light of a tallow candle. No going into other student’s rooms; no associating with dissolute persons apt to lead “an unquiet life.” No “needless perseverations, foolish garrulings, chidings, strifes, railings, uncomely noise, spreading ill rumors, divulging secrets …”
But it was never easy to preserve the faith, and no matter how clear the guidelines they didn’t always prevent the students from wandering into taverns, or the resident clergy from blundering into heresy. Rector Timothy Cutler was peremptorily dismissed in 1722 when he concluded the September commencement exercises with a prayer to which he added the Anglican form of an ending, “And let all the people say, Amen.” The words signified the Rector’s too close acquaintance with Arminianism, which embraced the heretical notion that a human soul could bring about its own salvation. Puritan dogma held that only God’s predestined decree had any say in the matter of amens, and Rector Cutler was gone before the first leaves fell from the elm trees. Soon afterwards, so was Jonathan Edwards. A graduate of the Class of 1720, Edwards served as a tutor at the College from 1724 until 1726, at which time he pronounced the air in New Haven so fouled with the stench of Arminianism that he departed for a pulpit in Northhampton, Massachusetts, and the parishioners on whose heads he soon brought down his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Yale offered a predominantly theological course of study throughout the whole of the 18th century, but the finer points of doctrine were nearly always in dispute. The Great Awakening of the 1740s divided both the College and the town into rival states of grace known as Old Lights and New Lights, the two congregations worshipping in adjacent churches on the Green. During the Second Great Awakening in 1802, the outbreak of fervent religious feeling among the students and younger faculty—so sudden and wonderful to behold that many were “awestruck and amazed”—once again remanded the Calvinist company of the elect to the passions of urgent oratory and declamation. Those among them who could not endure the hideous sight of blasphemy followed Jonathan Edwards westward out of Sodom, departing for the settlements on the still innocent American frontier, there to preach the uninfected truth.
Transposed into the forms of political argument, the tendency to question the motives of Providence allied Yale College with the cause of American independence. The Class of 1769 objected to the British Parliament’s passing of the Townshend Acts that imposed a tax on imported English cloth, and by way of protest it posted a notice in the newspaper announcing its appearance at that year’s commencement “wholly dressed in the Manufactures of our own country.” Fourteen of the College’s graduates were elected to the Continental Congress, four signed the Declaration of Independence, and 12 served as generals in the Revolutionary War. When British troops invaded New Haven in the summer of 1779, 70 students (roughly half the enrollment in a College dedicated to the training of ministers) rushed into pitched battle with assorted dueling pistols and fowling pieces. They lost the fight, but their tenacity impressed the admiral of the British fleet. Inclined to punish their impertinence by burning to the ground “the largest University in America,” which might “with propriety be styled the parent and nurse of rebellion,” the admiral was dissuaded from doing so, at least partly on the rumor of heavy American cannon in the vicinity of Hamden, and the British contented themselves, in the words of the Yale President, Ezra Stiles, with “Plunder, Rape, Murder, Bayoneting, Indelicacies toward the Sex, Incidents of Abuse and Insults toward the Inhabitants in general.”
When not otherwise employed in the service of church or state, the Yale talent for disputation found its most vivid expression among the questions addressed to the curriculum. What was it proper to teach, in what languages living or dead, and what weight was to be assigned to the word of God in a world increasingly persuaded by the laws of reason and the proofs of science? Conservative both by temperament and doctrine, Yale inclined to look with suspicion on the advancements of learning. As late as 1714, ignorant of Newton’s physics and not yet fully convinced by the observations of Galileo, the College was still firm in its opinion that the sun revolved around the earth; the faculty didn’t consent to the teaching of history and belles lettres until 1776, and in 1802 President Timothy Dwight (the grandson of Jonathan Edwards) vilified the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau in a sermon (well attended and gratefully received) to which he gave the title, “The Nature and Danger of Infidel Philosophy.” Various dissatisfactions with the College lesson plan resulted in periodic flights into the wilderness—there to begin again with fresh ink and a revised syllabus—and between the years 1747 and 1793 Yale graduates either founded, or served as the first president, of Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Williams, and the University of Georgia.
Over the course of the 19th century Yale cautiously revised its curriculum to satisfy the requirements of a society learning to build steel mills, munitions factories, and railroads. President Jeremiah Day issued a directive in 1828 that established the premises for what became known as a liberal education—less insistence on rote memorization and more emphasis on learning how to think, “not to teach what is peculiar to each one of the professions, but to lay the foundation for what is common to them all.” Gradually the College relinquished the practice of conversing in Latin and Greek, adopted European standards of scholarly research, acquired schools of medicine, divinity and law, approved the intellectual adventurism of Benjamin Silliman and Willard Gibbs, awarded (in 1861) America’s first doctoral degree, added laboratories and studies in the natural sciences, developed the discipline of paleontology. But no matter how numerous the reforms, they tended to lag a generation behind the times, and the impatient friends of a new and abridged revelation seldom lacked for reasons to complain. Across the span of the century their voices echo with a sound comparable to the one behind the screen of the small talk in Commons on the evening of Benno Schmidt’s fanfare to the not-so-common man:
During the last three decades of the 19th century the country’s new industrial wealth began to erect universities on the cornerstones of its own names, and the monuments bought and paid for by Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Duke attested to the reformation of the American ruling class. Ministers and lawyers ceded pride of place to businessmen and bankers, and at Yale the old Puritan ways and means were fitted to more worldly ends. The sons of great fortune could afford to regard their four years at the College as a social rather than an intellectual enterprise, and what was wanted was a stage on which to learn the lessons of conduct and deportment that Pierson in his book of Yale achievement had described as “the training in good habits … habits of industry and exact study; good moral and physical habits; habits in square and manly dealing.” The academy for dissenters evolved into a gentleman’s College, the enrollment substantially enlarged (500 students in 1850, 1,000 students in 1900), the academic curriculum augmented with a merry-go-round of extracurricular orchestras and literary clubs, the country’s first daily student newspaper, fraternities, marching bands, senior honor societies, and lively sporting scenes.
The football field offered the most dramatic setting for the show of strength and the proofs of character, and the Yale team exulted in its nine-year run of undefeated seasons. Invented at the College by Walter Camp, captain of the team in 1878, 1879, and 1881, and afterwards its coach, football so quickly captured the public imagination that by the turn of the 20th century the Yale-Harvard game had become the most glamorous event on the nation’s athletic calendar. The big New York money traveled to New Haven in private railroad cars (T. H. Gillespie aboard “Caligula,” J. P. Morgan aboard “Connecticut,” sometimes as many as 50 less splendid equipages bearing magnificences of smaller fortune); newspapermen in checkered trousers arrived from cities as distant as Denver and Los Angeles; lovely delegations of the fairer sex, resplendent in bright silk and heavy fur, looked as if they stepped briefly out, or charmingly down, from one of Charles Dana Gibson’s illustrations in Leslie’s Weekly. The young gentlemen on the field of honor played for Yale and God and country, and although God was never seen to stand and cheer, the country sometimes waved its hat. President Teddy Roosevelt, himself a Harvard man, struck the preferred tone in the autumn of 1901. Accepting an honorary degree on the occasion of Yale’s 200th anniversary, the hero of San Juan Hill bestowed on the College the blessing of the Gilded Age:
For the underclassmen in 1901 the surest path to righteousness led from struggle on the football field to the glory of selection by one of the senior honor societies, preferably Skull and Bones. Every spring on what was known as Tap Day, the 15 departing seniors in each of the societies chose their successors from among the members of the junior class. The ceremony was very solemn, a Calvinist proof of grace performed in a College courtyard in full view of the entire student body. The firm tap on the right shoulder, accompanied by the command, “Go to your room,” signified acceptance in the company of the elect, one’s College works and days judged worthy of redemption. Owen Johnson (Class of 1900) memorialized the emotion of the moment in Stover at Yale:
Together with nearly every other man in his class, Johnson’s heroic Dink Stover comes to Yale from an eastern boarding school where he has been taught the lesson that from those to whom much has been given, much will be asked. During his freshman year he serves his apprenticeship to the football team and acquires the properly languid attitude toward “the necessary evil” of his studies—“the price to be paid for passing four years in pleasant places with congenial companions.”
But he also finds himself moved by a sympathetic feeling for the poorer inhabitants of the town, working-class people absorbed in the “earnest romance of the submerged nine-tenths,” and he forms a friendship with Brockhurst, a fellow student who mocks the College’s veneer of learning and rails against “the savage fanaticism” of its “race for success.” Brockhurst defines the College as “a beef trust with every by-product organized,” and speaking for the author in a voice not unlike George Pierson’s, he champions the freedom of mind against the tyranny of the business ethic:
Stover believes what he sees and listens to what he’s told, and during his sophomore year he defies the social authority of the “in crowd”—drops out of his sophomore society, keeps company with “idlers” who live unquiet lives. The mood passes, and Stover, much improved by his wandering in the morass of doubt, goes safely into the Harvard game and through the gate at Bones. The ending argued for the proposition that Yale was about having it both ways—spiritual transcendence and worldly success, the practice of democracy and the privilege of oligarchy, talent reconciled to virtue, God at one with Mammon, John Calvin in a letter sweater.
First published in serial form in McClure’s Magazine 11 years after Johnson’s graduation, the book proved immensely popular among readers everywhere in the country as well as among those within the College, and for the next 40-odd years the term “Stoverism” summed up the general impression of Yale that still remained current in New York literary circles in the summer of 1992.
The impression was intentional, aided and abetted during the first half of the 20th century by the three Yale presidents (Arthur Twining Hadley, James Rowland Angell, and Charles Seymour) who in their own persons embodied the ideal of the civilized gentleman as much at ease on a pheasant shoot as in the company of Tacitus. Hadley took office in 1899, the first layman to do so, and not long afterwards he revised the schedule of payments on the debt owed both to Caesar and to God. Asked by a visiting clergyman how long he was expected to preach to the undergraduates assembled in Battell Chapel, Hadley replied, “Of course, we put no limit upon you, but we have a feeling here at Yale that no souls are saved after the first 20 minutes.”
The faculty understood teaching as a dramatic art. They enjoyed presenting themselves in the characters of Robert Browning or Sir John Falstaff, which startled the philosopher George Santayana in the autumn of 1917 when he gave a season of lectures at New Haven and seconded the motion of Teddy Roosevelt:
The judgment was incomplete. It was true that the College paid more attention to “good moral and physical habits” than it did to the subtleties of the French Enlightenment or the Spanish Inquisition; it was also true that at Harvard the ranking professors (Santayana among them, together with William James, and Josiah Royce) brought to their lectures degrees of scholarship thought excessive by their peers at Yale. What Santayana missed was the congregation of Yale’s chronically dissatisfied minority, the students and younger faculty more likely to torment themselves with metaphysics than their compatriots elsewhere in what was to become the Ivy League. Like Brockhurst, they didn’t dine at Mory’s, didn’t know the lyrics to “Boola Boola” or the “Whiffenpoof Song;” their energies tended to gather around the questions of divinity and law. The resident clergy operating under the imprimatur of Dwight Hall, many of them as fierce in their beliefs as Jonathan Edwards, recruited missionaries to bring the light of Christian learning to China, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to the Indian reservations on the Dakota plains. The law school, smaller than the one at Harvard and always angrier about the misallocations of social justice, attracted students more apt to become assistant district attorneys than corporate counsel to a steel company.
The voices of conscience were hard to hear through the music of the Jazz Age, and Yale between the two World Wars unashamedly embraced the joys of Stoverism. When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925, it was not by accident that he cast as Yale men both Nick Carraway and Tom Buchanan. The neo-Gothic residential colleges appeared during the years of the Great Depression, the dining halls furnished with linen table cloths and silver serving bowls, the beds made and the rooms cleaned by Irish maids. President Angell had endorsed the architecture after spending a summer in England studying the buildings on exhibit at Oxford and Cambridge. He returned to Connecticut with a set of sketches and drawings, and after due consultation with Edward Harkness (Class of 1897), the alumnus who paid the bill, the workmen were instructed to affix the stamps of antiquity by smudging the façades with soot, dripping acid on the sandstone.
Most of the memoirs of the period speak to the pleasures of four years in pleasant places with congenial companions. The diarists remember being happily introduced to John Donne’s poetry and Lester Lanin’s dance music, their first looking into Coleridge or the milk punch at the Taft Hotel. My father ’31 never forgot Chauncey Tinker’s lectures on Lawrence Sterne or the bathtub gin and three-day bridge games in Vanderbilt Hall. The New York newspapers in the 1920s published on their front pages the names of the young gentlemen tapped for Bones, and well into the 1930s the Harvard-Yale game preserved its place as the country’s foremost sports event, attracting to the stands personages as grand as Georges Clemenceau, Texas Guinan, and Babe Ruth.
Although the College awarded scholarships to students distinguished by little else except their “habits of industry and exact study,” the gifts brought with them a schedule of hidden costs. Thomas Bergin ’25 (subsequently Sterling Professor of Romance Languages), had been born and raised in New Haven; therefore associated with what Stover regretfully had seen as “the stench of the town,” the young Bergin couldn’t afford to join a fraternity or buy a hip flask. Lacking prestige and a patrician manner, he escaped the notice of the wealthier students (“quite simply unaware of the existence of the lower social orders”) who walked past him in the street as carelessly as they walked past the stone gargoyles and the exemplary moss. Max Lerner ’23, later an important social critic, saved enough of the little money he earned as a dining room waiter to acquire a second-hand raccoon coat. To no avail. Nobody ever asked for his opinion of the football team or stood him to a drink at DKE.
In none of the Yale texts from the late 1930s do I find anybody drawing the analogy between the stench of Arminianism and the stench of the submerged nine-tenths, but the crisis of the Second World War fostered a patriotic reawakening of the belief in democracy and raised the problem of social class to the power of theological dispute. If Yale wished to continue setting the example of American virtue and composing the group photograph of the American elite, somebody had to think of something to tell the admissions office. William C. DeVane, Dean of the College in 1948, framed the amended purpose as an imperative:
Arguments about the correct definition of the phrase “an intellectual eminence” soon involved the company of the elect in another of its periodic seasons of discontent. The faculty divided into the academic equivalents of Old Lights and New Lights, and in 1950 William F. Buckley Jr., the chairman of the Yale Daily News, published what amounted to an 18th-century sermon, God and Man at Yale, in which he denounced the proposed revision of the curriculum as monstrous relativism and wicked folly. Never mind that he was Catholic, and thus likely to have been seen as an abomination by the Congregationalist ministers who once directed the College’s plan of worship; an inheritor of Yale’s polemical turn of mind, Buckley had searched through every one of the College’s academic departments, but nowhere had he found anything “uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes.”
Discussion of Buckley’s book was still a work in progress when I entered Yale in the autumn of 1952, and by the end of my first term I’d come across four or five factions of undergraduate dissent, none of them aligned with Buckley’s strict construction of the Christian faith, but all of them, had they but known it, partaking of Brockhurst’s dissatisfaction with “Yale as a magnificent factory on democratic business lines,” and dreaming, as did Brockhurst:
No idealistic undergraduate had very far to look for objects of derision on which to chalk up the proofs of loyalty to a higher truth and a nobler purpose. Yale in the 1950s had begun to transform itself along the lines marked out by Dean DeVane, but it was still the gentleman’s College to which the clean and lovable sons of privilege were sent in station wagons to improve their acquaintance with the civilization (here is London, there is Paris) in which they would have occasion to be spending a great deal of money. The opening paragraph of the freshman handbook carried the instruction “to treat Yale as you would a good woman,” and the students gathered in protest around the statue of Nathan Hale in the autumn of 1953 were carrying signs in praise of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
To take seriously the precepts of so complacently conservative an institution was to trade one’s soul for the standard mess of Wall Street pottage, and the expression of underground resistance revealed itself in grand and small remonstrances against the philistinism outfitted by the York Street tailors at J. Press (where pre-scuffed white buckskin shoes sold for $10 more than the same shoes still in the box); also against Harris tweed and the football team, the editorials in the Yale Daily News (steadfast in its support of Lester Lanin and the McCarthy hearings), the Fence Club, weekends at Vassar or Smith, the CIA (which maintained recruiting offices in both the history and the English departments), button-down shirts, captain’s chairs, anything and everything that could be identified with Dink Stover or Henry Luce.
To the best of my knowledge and recollection, the faculty didn’t distribute Sharps rifles for an assault on Fraternity Row, but in sophomore year I remember Alexander Witherspoon, a Milton scholar and of the same generation as George Pierson, remarking on the subversive nature of the Yale dialectic. He had put a question to the class about one of the lesser angels in Paradise Lost, and when it met with a still and perfect silence, he pointed an admonishing finger at the young gentlemen in what suddenly seemed a very small room. “An education,” he said, “is a self-inflicted wound.” He then went on to say that Yale was not to be admired merely for its superb collection of striped and polka-dot ties. Perhaps we would take the trouble to notice that elsewhere under the elm trees the College had assembled a large assortment of sharp and blunt instruments, all or any one of which was capable of inflicting irreparable harm.
During my junior year I heard Richard Sewall, another of the inspired professors then in residence, make a similar point in the course of a lecture on Hamlet. His commentary on the play had brought him to the subject of medieval architecture, which in turn reminded him of the neo-Gothic bastion at Yale, its likeness to a cloister or a fortress, its monasticism and “inward-moatedness” distinguishing it from the more companionable atmosphere of Princeton and the urbanity of Harvard. Which possibly was why the students, or at least some of the students, delighted in soliloquies and disputations. In a castle or a monastery, what else was there to do?
It was a question to which I never found an extracurricular answer, and most of what I learned at Yale I learned in what I now remember as one long, wayward conversation in the only all-night restaurant on Chapel Street. The topics under discussion—God, man, existence, Alfred Prufrock’s peach—were borrowed from the same anthology of large abstraction that supplied the texts for English 10 or Philosophy 116, but at 3 a.m. in the brightly lit booths of the United restaurant the review of the material seemed somehow closer in spirit to what was being said in Greenwich Village than to the mimeographed course outlines placed on the desks of Harkness Hall. The dramatis personae changed from week to week, but the company invariably added to the sum of its quixotic hopes and miscellaneous discontents—apprentice poets and would-be novelists, a trumpet player in one of Yale’s jazz bands badly unnerved by his sexual encounter (two days in the Hotel Duncan) with Sarah Vaughn, authors of plays in one scene, aggrieved Jews resentful of their status as designated proofs of Christian grace, a student of Russian literature suspected of Communism and arrested by the FBI for possession of a Thompson sub-machine gun, admirers of Albert Camus and Berthold Brecht, angry young English professors chafing under the rules of academic tenure, an actress from the Drama School who had been to bed with Brando.
Recalled 50 years later in the bourgeois comfort of an editorial office in Manhattan, my principled objections to Harris tweed take on shadings of the absurd. Like Stover I had arrived at Yale by way of a eastern boarding school, admitted not for habits of industry or study (at Hotchkiss I stood 57th in a class of 72), but because my father had been mustered into the troop at Bones and because on ground adjacent to the Yale Bowl my great-grandfather had commissioned the construction of the Lapham Field House in order to insure the graduation, in 1924, of my backsliding great-uncle Ray.
But what was not absurd was the passionate intensity of the late-night talk on Chapel Street, the sense that something more important was at stake than the grade (almost certainly failing) on the next day’s geology quiz. Having noticed the contradiction between what was said in the baccalaureate addresses at Woolsey Hall and what was meant by the diploma—the Yale education as the means of acquiring cash value as opposed to the grandiloquent statement about the College preparing its students “for the whole of life, as free men in a free society, etc.”—we thought we had discovered something new and brave. We didn’t know that we had fallen into the old Yale habit of quarreling with Providence, that it wasn’t the terms of the argument that were important but the energy with which it was engaged.
Neither did we know that another version of the quarrel was going forward in Woodbridge Hall, the participants as vividly engaged but with opinions more well-informed and in language less verbose. A. Whitney Griswold had succeeded Charles Seymour as President of Yale in 1950, and although a graduate of the gentleman’s College (Class of 1929, a member of Wolf’s Head), he concurred in the judgment of Dean DeVane. Yale was too much a rich man’s school. The time was at hand to do for the many what had been done for the few, to search out students less fortunately born, enlarge and extend the mandate of Heaven, attract professors of national rank, apply a meritocratic means to an egalitarian end, or, having it both ways and maybe just as well, an egalitarian means to a meritocratic end.
The rearrangement of the social and intellectual furniture occupied the College for the next 20 years. Griswold drafted the syllabus of change, and until his death in 1963, he oversaw the first stages of reformation; his successor, Kingman Brewster, completed the program in the years 1964 to 1973. Like Griswold, Brewster was a graduate of the gentleman’s Yale (Class of 1941, member of the Pundits); also like Griswold, he proceeded from the premise that privilege owed a debt both to virtue and to talent, and when asked what it was that he had in mind for the College he liked to say, “I do not intend to preside over a finishing school on Long Island Sound.” None of their motions carried without objection, and their joint venture was accompanied from the beginning by loud lamentation in the correspondence columns of the Yale Alumni Magazine.
Of the two presidents, Griswold was the more contemplative, a history professor fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on liberal education as the means whereby “the best geniuses” might be “raked from the rubbish.” He construed the University as the proverbial ivory tower, mercifully removed from the “money rackets.” Mistrusting both the practical and the practitioner, Griswold opposed federal funding for a medical school, disapproved of policy institutes and committee reports, didn’t like to go to meetings. His secretaries scheduled one meeting in the morning, another in the afternoon, each limited to the duration of an hour. He seldom inquired about the purpose of a meeting—whether it was meant to reassure the faculty or comfort a deputation of disquieted alumni; what was important was that there were only two. He preferred to sit at his desk with a fountain pen and a yellow legal pad, composing essays remarkable for their eloquence. Like Pierson, he associated learning with freedom:
Among the few prominent people in the country who spoke forcibly and publicly against Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s, Griswold was also an accomplished mimic and a puckish wit, once seen on a College balcony delivering a speech in imitation of Mussolini, on another occasion dancing—with straw hat and cane—off the stage of a lecture hall in which he had just conducted a class in American history. He also delighted in architecture, and the university during his term as President commissioned buildings from Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, and Paul Rudolph.
If Griswold was closer in spirit to Owen Johnson’s Brockhurst, Brewster more nearly resembled Stover, serving as the University’s provost when Griswold died and thus prepared to carry forward into practice what his predecessor had posited in theory. Restless and impulsive, always glad of the chance for a meeting or a speech, Brewster vaulted into office on an ascending curve of optimism and great expectation. The country’s sense of its supremacy in the world had survived the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963; in Washington President Lyndon Johnson was talking about a Great Society rich enough to afford an amplitude of guns and butter, and in New Haven Brewster was talking about more and better faculty, higher salaries, a business school, larger stores of relevance and marble. In his manner and appearance he reminded people of a Kennedy, and at his swearing in as Yale’s 17th president in Woolsey Hall in April 1964, the impressive show of pomp and ceremony (trumpets, drums, shouts of “Long Live the King”) suggested to all present the hope of Camelot regained.
Over the span of the next six years Brewster and Yale made good on most of the promises and projections. The University adopted a policy of need-blind admissions and offered more acceptances to public school students than to those from private schools; class attendance was no longer compulsory; senior essays replaced comprehensive examinations; black students appeared in larger numbers; the faculty nearly doubled in size and so did faculty salaries; the Corporation in 1969 approved the admission of 500 women undergraduates.
An admired figure on the Yale campus, often seen strolling with his dog and happy to believe that everyone at the University “knows someone who is known, intimately, to me,” Brewster understood the University as an active agent of social change. An ancestor had made the voyage on the Mayflower, and he regarded himself as an aristocrat who could afford to pay premium prices for the gestures of noblesse oblige. His patrician manner and open-handed munificence endeared him to the faculty and students in New Haven, but the alumni were not as readily amused. Most of them as conservative in attitude as Jeremiah Day or Timothy Dwight (the undergraduates of 1960 had preferred Richard Nixon over John Kennedy by a margin of two to one), they didn’t approve of love beads and blue guitars, took unkindly to the news that their old fraternities were being condemned as “elitist,” too clearly marked with the labels of prep school “prestige.” By 1965 the alumni were refusing the annual requests for funds, responding instead with letters in which they deplored the University’s failure to uphold the social and intellectual traditions with which (in the days of the correspondent’s youth) it had been so nobly blessed. In New York, Henry Luce was heard to say, “What the hell is wrong with prestige?”
The events of the late 1960s reformulated the decade’s early and optimistic enthusiasms as street demonstrations associated with the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, and within the University the aesthetic objections to the Fence Club and captains’ chairs found political expression in marches on the Pentagon and the defiant burnings of a draft card or a bra. Nobody at Yale more fully embodied the rebellious temper of the times than the Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr., the University chaplain whose quarrels with Providence—his own and those of anybody else who cared to sign a petition or raise a fist—seldom failed to make the six o’clock news. A man for every season of discontent, Coffin’s life had run through all the chapters of both the Old and New Testaments of the Yale scripture—born in 1924 to wealth and privilege in New York, cast briefly into poverty as a boy in Carmel, California, a year spent studying the piano in Paris, a diploma from Andover, four years in the Army during and shortly after World War II, a degree from Yale (’49), two years of service at the CIA, a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, brief encounters with Williams College and the Peace Corps, and appointed, in March of 1958, to the job that Griswold described when offering it as “Yale’s conscience.” Coffin accepted the appointment with a simple, “Yes.” He could as easily have said, “Of course.” From his father (William Sloane Coffin ’00) and grandfather (Edmund, Class of 1866) he had inherited a proprietary interest in the College, and he knew that it was his mission to preach, as did the 17th-century Puritans, “the uncomfortable Gospel.” His first prayer as Chaplain to the Freshman Assembly in September 1959 informed the class that the “Lord forbids our using our education merely to buy our way into middle-class security.”
Coffin wanted to believe that the nation’s universities constituted the “faithful remnant” meant to stand against the drift of “materialism, conformism, and complacency,” and during the 17 years of his tenure in the pulpit at Battell Chapel, he practiced as he preached—bringing Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at Yale in 1959; boarding a Freedom Ride in Alabama in the spring of 1960, jailed in Mississippi for having gone the last imprudent mile; organizing the earliest opposition to the Vietnam War in October 1965, two years later advising students to surrender their draft cards; being indicted by the federal government in 1968 for conspiracy and civil disobedience, the indictment also naming Benjamin Spock ’25; opening Battell Chapel in 1969 to a Black Panther protest, introducing Kingman Brewster to Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsburg on May Day, 1970 at the demonstration in New Haven joined by 13,000 people who had come to “Free Bobby Seale”; traveling with David Dellinger ’36 to Hanoi in September 1972 to accept the release of three American prisoners of war.
The parable of the Yale chaplain speaking truth to power sustained the several factions of undergraduate dissent, some of them grounded in the causes of civil liberties and civil rights, others on the road to Selma, Woodstock, or Chicago. As was to be expected, the alumni were appalled. Presidents Griswold and Brewster fended off the demands for Coffin’s dismissal by referring the complainants to the First Amendment, but Griswold’s riposte was the more pointed. Remarking to Coffin that “the brethren are a little hot under the collar,” he showed him his formal letter of reply, in which he made the point that learning was synonymous with the freedom of mind, “as those without a Yale education are sometimes a little slow in grasping.”
The rebellious spirit of the Age of Aquarius, its optimistic enthusiasms as well as its angry protests, expired during the early years of the 1970s. The Watergate scandal forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the war in Vietnam ended in a whimper of retreat (an overburdened helicopter lifting off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon), and the once urgent questions of civil rights gave way to the even more pressing concerns about a once-prosperous economy faltering into recession. The price of Arab oil reached $40 a barrel, the price of gold $512 an ounce, and the important people at the country’s important conference tables talked about the ways in which small was beautiful, and why, in an age of scarcity, it was wise to hedge the bets of idealism with prudent balances of self-interest.
In the atmosphere of diminished expectation at Yale, the fervent rhetoric of the 1960s dwindled down the drains of esoteric literary theory, and the administrators in Woodbridge Hall approached the University’s budget as a text sorely in need of deconstruction. Brewster never had been a man to count the cost of a grand gesture or a noble experiment, and by 1974 the Yale endowment was hard-pressed to pay for the maintenance of its buildings and grounds, much less to advance the sums required for bold initiatives. The faculty brooded over plans of retrenchment as if contemplating maps of lost artillery positions, and the students returned (without much protest or unruly noise) to the careful study of corporate career moves. When in 1977 the Reverend Coffin published his memoir, Once to Every Man, the tone of it suggested that he was writing about a place and time the likes of which he never hoped to see again.
That same year A. Bartlett Giamatti took office as President of the University, and I begin to lose the thread of the Yale narrative. Not because I neglected to read the books or question witnesses both credible and well informed, but because I talked to so many of the interested bystanders that I can’t place all the available opinions in an intelligible context or a coherent sequence. Giamatti I knew as a friend. Prior to his accession to the Yale purple, I had engaged him to write four articles a year for Harper’s Magazine about the American sporting scene, and it so happened that in the fall of 1977 I was teaching an undergraduate seminar at Calhoun College over the span of the same two months in which the Corporation was weighing Giamatti on the scale of judgment. Every Wednesday for ten weeks I met him at a coffee shop somewhere in New Haven to bring a report of the rumors circulating among the well-placed alumni in New York, and I came to understand something of his ambivalence about the prospect of being named the University’s President. His father had attended Yale as a day student, and although Giamatti had been born in Boston and schooled at Andover, he never overcame the suspicion that he might be wearing the same cloak of invisibility that had hidden Thomas Bergin. If and when he stood revealed to the clean and lovable sons of privilege, he didn’t know whether he would be found deserving of their recognition and trust. Openly emotional and easily excited to dramatic expression, Giamatti never was much good at disguising whatever thought happened to cross his mind, and over the course of the autumn semester I learned that although as a professor of Renaissance literature he taught the texts of Machiavelli, he didn’t take to heart the instruction in cynicism. He chose to think that it was better for a prince to be loved than feared, and on his first morning in Woodbridge Hall in July 1978, he issued his first memo to the University as a flourish of self-effacing wit:
The office of a university president Giamatti defined as a “mid–19th-century ecclesiastical position on top of a late 20th-century corporation,” and he gave up writing for Harper’s Magazine (about sports or any other subject) on the grounds that he no longer could speak or write in any language other than what he called “the higher institutional.” The President of Yale depended on the good will of too many constituencies at odds with one another (faculty, students, administrative staff, parents, alumni, the federal government), and he no longer could afford to commit the crime of candor. On the topic of a liberal education (“a cauldron of competing ideas and not a neatly-arranged platter of received opinions”) he wrote as eloquently as Griswold, but he didn’t enjoy the advantage of an equally receptive audience. The boom of prosperity synonymous with the first term of the Reagan administration brought with it a miracle of loaves and fishes in the financial markets, and by 1983 Giamatti might as well have been shouting his faith in higher education into a Shakespearean tempest or a wind tunnel. Occasionally I ran across him at a fund-raising event in New York, and always he seemed two or three years older than when I’d seen him last. It galled him to bend the courtier’s knee to the ruling prejudices in the money rackets, and I remember him once saying that he had thought a university president was supposed to cut a more dignified figure in the world than that of a “song-and-dance man, stepping brightly through the paces of the beggar’s pantomime.”
As with Giamatti, so also with a fair percentage of the faculty and alumni whom I encountered while making notes for the book I didn’t write. I probably talked to as many as 200 people about events at the College in the last quarter of Henry Luce’s century, and if the conversation went the distance of a second drink, I invariably could count on the prophet seated across the table at Mory’s or standing at the bar of the Yale Club to open a vein of idealism. During their days as undergraduates they had handled too carelessly one or more of the sharp instruments left lying around under the elm trees, and having come away with a lifelong wound, they expected more of themselves than a fortune in vulcanized rubber or a row of condominiums on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The object of a Yale education they remembered as a joining of the proofs of success to those of conscience, the perfect synthesis of the College dialectic never more perfectly expressed than by James C. Thompson, a member of the Class of 1953 who subsequently became both a Chinese scholar and an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency—“Do good, walk humbly with thy God; but become powerful, famous, and, if possible, affluent.” The maneuver was never as easy as it looked in a New Yorker cartoon, and the better failure was the one on the side of Puritan discontent, not with the sophisticated inertia allied with the party of things-as-they-are, but with the troubled and romantic energy implicit in the hope of things-as-they-might-become. Not that there was anything wrong either with prestige or the standard mess of Wall Street pottage, which was a good deal more nourishing than it could be made to seem in blank verse or on the stage of an off-Broadway play, but there was also the injunction to improve and reform, if not the universe or the always too-easily-corrupted colony of Connecticut, then at least the management of a salmon fishery or the affairs of a suburban hospital.
Speaking for the record and with almost no exceptions, the interested bystanders expected of the University what they expected of themselves. I met with venerable members of the faculty who thought Brewster a great man and Giamatti a dreaming fool, also with those, equally venerable, who thought Giamatti a great man and Brewster a glad-handing shill; I spoke to watchful alumni who said that all of Yale College had become a business school, the old idea of the gentleman songster off on a spree replaced with that of the professional careerist gathering the acorns of credit and approval. For as many people who thought that the experiment in egalitarian theory had proved a miserable failure, an equal number pronounced it an astonishing success.
I was again reminded of the disputes with Providence on the warm October day in 1993 when Richard Levin was invested with the office and emblems of the Yale Presidency. The University staged the ceremony with its customary delight in theatrical effect—trumpet voluntaries and muffled drums, a slow and splendid procession of dignitaries in academic velvet and scarlet silk, college flags dressed up in the devices of medieval heraldry, fanciful tents, gaily decorated with pennants broad and flying, sunlight glittering through the arched windows of Woolsey Hall, and from the choir loft high up under the ceiling of painted clouds, a descant of soprano voices falling from a 17th-century sky. Baroque organ music accompanied the carrying of the Yale mace onto the rococo stage; the orchestra played an anthem set to words from Antigone, and Levin delivered a speech shining with noble truths.
All in all, a fine performance, and afterwards on the Cross Campus lawns as many as 2,000 friends and guests of the University assembled under a drift of blue and white balloons, the prophets at ease in Zion, and on every hand the nods and becs of great good feeling—faculty smiling on students, students happy with the show of pomp, the gratifying presence of prominent alumni (grave statesmen, noted wits), President Levin and his wife standing on the steps of Sterling Library, shaking hands, accepting the gifts of benediction.
Not yet having given up the notion of a book about Yale, and therefore collecting notes for what was still a work in progress, I had asked several of the faculty and alumni for their impression of Levin’s speech. Not surprisingly, they blessed it with superlatives, their opinions all within the range of brilliant and magnificent. But the first student to whom I put the question—a student approached at random and one whom I had never seen before—dismissed it with contempt, as if I’d intended an insult or a joke.
“You’re not serious,” he said. “You weren’t there, right?”
I assured him that I’d heard the whole of the speech, even taken notes.
“You know,” he said, “if I thought that I was going to grow up to become Rick Levin, I’d kill myself before eight o’clock tonight.”
Impressed by the ferocity of the remark, I asked for further explication of what he clearly regarded as a wicked text, obnoxious in the eye of Heaven. It wasn’t that he didn’t think the speech appropriate to the occasion, but somehow he had hoped for something he could recognize as revelation—uncontaminated absolutes, a burning bush—and for the next 20 minutes he denounced the dream of reason that had brought forth so many of the century’s monstrous births. He phrased his objection in an impetuous rush of words, juggling names and dates like Indian clubs, rounding up Levin in a net of infamy with the Vietnam War, hydrogen bombs, Henry Kissinger, blatant credentialism, the mindless and uncaring greed of the New York banks, the debasement of America’s moral coinage and the loss of its spiritual inheritance, the successor trustees of the Yale Corporation.
It was hard to know whether the student’s politics tended left or right; what was unmistakable was the passion with which he engaged his play of ideas and amazed himself with the act of intellectual discovery. I admired his lack of caution. For all he knew, I could have been one of the successor trustees, an old guy in a gray suit who might mention his impertinence to a dean, make trouble with his résumé, spoil his chance of an introduction to somebody important at Morgan Stanley or the New York Times. I couldn’t be certain of the fact, but I didn’t think that seditious spitting in the face of authority was much in vogue at Princeton, and I assumed that if a Harvard student had harbored a similar set of objections, he could have been relied upon to keep them judiciously hidden under a napkin of nervous irony.
Here again was the old quarrel. Not the one that had driven Rector Timothy Cutler out of the small seaport town that he would as soon have seen turned into a pillar of salt, nor again the one that had provoked the passions of Messrs. Buckley and Coffin, but an improvisation on the familiar Yale theme, “learned and pious and orthodox,” for which George Pierson had searched through his notes on a snowy day in the same vicinity of Hamden where a British admiral in 1779 had suspected the presence of heavy American cannon.
A sudden excitement of bells in Harkness Tower interrupted the young pilgrim in mid-sentence. The master of music at the keyboard in the carillon was making a joyful noise unto the Lord, outdoing himself with a gaudy rendition of a Bach chorale that obliged everybody on the lawn to observe a prolonged moment of appreciative silence. The bells brought to mind the four allegorical figures representing the cardinal points of a Yale success, also the eight Yale Worthies whose lifelike statues the masons had placed 20 feet below them, on the level of the clock. While reading through one of the College histories I dutifully had made note of all their names, but until that October afternoon it never had occurred to me that three of the eight embodied the antithetical spirit of remonstrance and dissent—Nathan Hale, hanged for treason against the British crown; John C. Calhoun, apostle of secession; Jonathan Edwards, Puritan tutor refusing to worship at the altar of the world in time. The lesson was in the stone.
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