If you peer behind the iron doors of one of Yale’s secret societies on
any given Thursday or Sunday night, you won’t find 15 white men chortling
at the world over cigars and brandy. In fact, you will see a picture right
out of a college admissions view-book: Sitting around the dinner table
will be a black man, a Latina, a South Asian woman, several Jews, and
a few token wasps. They will be journalists, athletes, intellectuals,
and activists; some will be gay, some will be Christian, and there will
be at least one representative of Yale’s rarest minority, the conservative.
They are the new faces of the Yale elite, but in its old home. Within
their halls they enjoy all the ancient trappings of mystery and luxury;
they are served dinners by a staff and in a private library. And among
the privileges that they do not share with you is an educational and a
social experience that Yale’s best have tasted in on form or another over
I have always had a prying interest in Skull and Bones and its younger
siblings. After last year’s tap night left me unaffiliated, my curiosity
intensified and soured. But my interest in the societies as educational
institutions really sprung out of the uncertain days after September 11.
I was involved in a number of efforts to bring together students of different
cultural backgrounds and political convictions to talk about the attacks,
and I found again and again that the gulfs between students’ perspectives
were too wide to bridge constructively in a public forum. The debate could
not be civil. I realized that the obstacles preventing dialogue were more
personal than political, but ironically they belonged more to a public
than a private conversation. The secret societies were, I began to suspect,
a possible solution.
Secret societies are social experiments. Fifteen juniors from different
backgrounds, who have distinguished themselves in different walks of Yale
life, are thrown together in an environment structured to bring about
meaningful interaction and self-reflection. After three years of building
friendships and making names for themselves, about ten percent of every
Yale class is chosen at the end of its junior spring to be a part of one
or another of these groups. There are six societies with tombs, and a
more fluid roster that meet in other spaces, following the original model
with varying levels of seriousness. The shroud of each society’s rituals,
and the program for its initiates that those rituals conceal, differ from
hall to hall and from rented house to borrowed room. But three things
are almost universally shared: an emphasis on honest debate, candid autobiography,
Members liken the intensity of the social climate inside their halls
to that of the late-night discussions they had with friends and roommates
when they first came to Yale. This may be chalked up to the excitement
of a new environment and new friends, but the depth and the candor of
society conversations seem to be staked upon the other trappings of the
experience. "More than secret, maybe [societies] are just private,"
one member told me. Without years to develop trusting friendships, members
of a society are thrown into intimate contact. The secrecy creates a safe
environment, and the oral autobiographies given by each member in most
societies deepen the bonds between students quickly. Not all members are
equally enthusiastic about the biographies, though: the last for as many
as five hours and can be vehicles for narcissism or exhibitionism as easily
as they can promote understanding. Complementing political and intellectual
debate with an opportunity to learn what experiences have informed opposing
perspectives should be a valuable exercise. But one society member expressed
his doubt that the message really sinks in. "All our life we’ve learned
just to judge things on the surface," he told me, "and I think
that’s tough to break down in just a year."
Multiculturalism and a certain amount of democratic guilt have crawled
under even the thickest of the most conservative skins, so that the principal
function of many societies has come to be the exploration of difference.
This was by no means always so. Throughout much of their history, secret
societies, as well as the University itself, have exerted a homogenizing
force. Eighty years ago, Yale was a much smaller place, with fewer extracurricular
activities in which students could excel. There was a clear ladder of
popularity and accomplishment that could be climbed, with Skull and Bones
looming at the top of the other tomb societies just below. This, at least,
is the caricature drawn by F. Scott Fitzgerald and by Owen Johnson in
Stover at Yale. The "best men" began their senior years as leaders
and strong characters on campus; the left as Bonesmen.
But the origins of the secret society system belie both its current appearance
and the role it seems to have played in Yale’s least democratic days.
Skull and Bones was founded in 1832, and Scroll and Keys a decade later.
At the time, Yale’s academic curriculum consisted mostly of classical
languages, mathematics, and the physical sciences. The rest of the liberal
education was extracurricular and largely student run, and the organs
that provided it were the sophomore, junior, and senior societies, the
debating and honors organizations, and the private student libraries of
Linonia and Brothers in Unity. It is unsurprising that this collegiate
atmosphere produced exclusive senior societies dedicated to debate, fraternity,
and intellectual ideals. The original atmosphere of Bones and Keys was
much more that of Dead Poet’s Society than the New World Order.
Maynard Mack’s History of Scroll and Key describes the heady idealism
and the activities of those early days with more detail than one would
expect in a text available to the public. Scroll and Key was a literary,
dramatic, and debating society, where students declaimed original poetry
and drank whisky punch in a rented room with velvet-draped walls. In his
book, Mack quotes an extended passage from the preamble to the society’s
The love of ideal beauty is the peculiar distinction of a noble mind;
that it is wise for perfect forms of grace, whether seen in the works
of literature, science, or art We believe that such studies and
pursuits develop the best affection of the heart, and the highest powers
of the intellect, and afford a foundation for friendships which are cemented
by elevating the character of thoughts, and by giving a decided tone to
the finer sentiments of the soul.
Mack describes how the liberal arts were folded into Yale’s academic
curriculum, and as Scroll and Key became an establishment and wealthy
institution, the function, if never the ideals of the rituals, of the
society changed. Scroll and Key began to fund academic prizes, scholarships,
and contribute financially to Yale in other ways, establishing a pattern
that other societies have followed. At the same time, the new curriculum
of the liberal arts à la carte was perceived as a threat to the
holistic autodidacticism of Yale’s 19th century education. Scroll and
Key perpetuated the older, gentlemanly intellectual culture and continued
to instill its qualities in the changing student body. Building up the
Society had given way to conserving a culture.
The demographics of the societies, especially the oldest and best-established
ones, never quite kept pace with those of the University. Until World
War II, the societies were dominated by white students, mostly from prep-schools,
often Yale and secret society legacies. By the late nineteen-sixties,
though, most of the societies were swept up in the democratic spirit of
the time-which Mack refers to as "the recent unpleasantness."
They began to admit students of color and women. In the early 1990s, Skull
and Bones and Wolf’s Head were the last two major societies to go co-ed.
But the hyper-diverse character of the societies today is recent and hard
won-a fact on the minds of the minority students within them.
The guidelines for choosing the next tap class differ from society to
society, but the taps have historically run through organizations. The
editor of the Daily News might have been all but guaranteed a place in
Skull and Bones for much of its history, but today many of those chains
have been broken and replaced with strong ones that run through minority
communities. I spoke with a woman who was tapped by a society but declined
to join. "When I decided," she said, "I was giving up [a
minority] tap, and that was a big deal." At the same time, many minority
students ask themselves why they should buy into the system at all. A
university can be opened up and democratized by the admission of women
and students of color. But the secret societies are by their nature closed
That was one of the larges issues I grappled with in considering the
function and culture of the societies. Whereas almost all the rest of
the 19th century student organizations are now either gone or radically
transformed, the secret societies and the model they established continue
essentially unchanged today. The question is: Is there something so inherently
strong about the social experiment that, despite 150 years of social change,
it can continue to drag along with it an anachronistic and distasteful
apparatus of exclusion? Or is the culture of perceived importance, luxury,
and privilege such a strong force that the social experiment that justifies
it can continue to adapt to the new demographics of Yale in order for
that culture to survive? This latter view is certainly held by many outside
the system. "Bad things last a long time, too," a faculty member
told me. "[Secret societies are] places where people make new friends,
but does that justify the structure of tap, exclusion and secrecy?"
He sees one of the impulses working on society members to be the same
one that motivates twelve-year-old boys to build a clubhouse-the desire
to exclude others.
While member recognize the existence of that impulse, most are quick
to qualify it. "[Inside the hall] you almost forget that you’re in
something that the outside world views as intimidating or scary,"
one told me. "You really forget, and it just becomes about who you
are interacting with. In the end, it’s just a club at a university."
The counterpoint to this view is an emphasis that some society members
put upon the power of tradition, and on knowing how many others have gone
through the same process. We all recognize the power of setting on our
personae-we act differently in church, in classroom, and with a group
of friends. Simply by being told that we are special, a member of the
elect, our behavior and self-projection can change to confirm that fact.
My father grew up in New Haven, and both my uncle and grandfather went
to Yale. When my father was at Lawrence College in Wisconsin, he found
the top of his class to be every bit as smart and accomplished as the
many people he had met at Yale. The self-confidence and ambition of his
peers was far less, however, as was their subsequent professional success.
He believed that name and history, not the people, made the difference;
that a conferred sense of importance can precipitate strength, genius,
What is ugliest about the secret societies is what they sometimes do
to the senior class, and to friendships. Though almost everyone concedes
that society taps are arbitrary, and that they are drive as much by politics
and friendships as they are by real indicators of one’s worth or success
at Yale, few juniors escape the process with their egos unaffected. Seniors
in societies may receive a boost to their self-confidence and a sense
that they are doing something important with their time at Yale, but being
passed over can be a burr under the skin that makes one’s haphazard path
through the University seem less coherent and one’s prospects beyond it
Emersonian self-reliance is not taught at Yale anymore, and it is not
in the air either. Grappling with the intelligence of one’s peers, the
frustration of academia, and the guilt of being part of an elite University
is tough. Both an exaggerated sense of accomplishment and indulgent self-doubt
are easier responses than honest confrontation of those issues.
But there is another problem that members do not always see. Within the
hall, one is expected to speak about oneself with great candor to nearly
perfect strangers. On the outside, though, much prettier secrets must
be tightly locked away from intimate friends and even family. It should
be enough to say that this hurts people, and that there are flaws in some
students’ personalities that become exaggerated under the pressure of
this conflict. Most people, no matter how much they deny it, are ultimately
more attracted to the promise of power and status than they are committed
to more fundamental obligations.
The model of secret societies fascinates me, and I believe that societies
have preserved lessons that the rest of Yale may have forgotten. Each
society has found a way to bring 15 dramatically different voices into
debate and conversation. Three presidents have been members of societies,
as have innumerable professors, statesmen, writers, and leaders in business.
Not all of Yale’s "best" have sat in one of the halls, but almost
everyone invited to has accepted. Within them, they have made new friends,
had rich and serious debate, and-more recently-explored difference. But
everyone who has accepted their tap has also made a compromise-one that
has staked, if only in a slight way, principles, autonomy and friendship
upon a blind promise of something better. I know for my part that I would
have made this compromise, but that does not mean I would have been proud
Blake Wilson, a senior in Branford College, is a contributing
editor to TNJ.