George Santayana, the Spanish Catholic atheist, homosexual,
poet and philosopher, once said a profound thing about two of America’s elite
universities. He called Harvard the toy Athens, and Yale the toy Sparta. He
added that he preferred the toy Sparta. The fact that Santayana taught
philosophy at Harvard makes the remark even more affectionately contemptuous.
Whenever I want to feel like a child of morning, playing
beneath the ancient, glittering eyes of a great-great-grandparent, I take out
Santayana’s comment and fondle it. Now it has a news hook, too, for it explains
what Senator Hillary Clinton hopes to get out of giving the commencement
address at Yale next month.
being what they are, the decision to ask her to speak was probably taken long
before she left the White House with a truckload of furniture and a pardon for
the Hasidic crooks of New Square, N.Y. But given the manner of her exit, the
Yale address comes at a perfect moment. She will reaffirm her ties as a
graduate of the law school; she will star at an event in a big year (Yale is
celebrating its tercentennial in 2001). Most important, she will have the
validation of the establishment in its most concentrated form. No other elite
institution could give this to her. When Ernest Hemingway offered to take up a
collection to send John O’Hara to Yale, he knew that Yale was the goal of
anxious strivers. Similarly, when John Kennedy got an honorary degree from
Yale, he joked that he now had the best of both worlds-a Harvard education and
a Yale degree. Content is all very well, but the best credentials come from New
Haven. For the full rush of elite approval, Mrs. Clinton has to go to the toy
What explains Yale’s peculiar eminence? The answer is
consistency and purity. Yale is the norm of the elite, or the elite version of
the norm. Other Ivy League schools are “elite and”: elite and
intellectual-eccentric (Harvard), elite and aristocratic (Princeton). Yale is
the thing itself, with no additives. No glitter, no kinks.
This was true during the founding. Harvard taught the
incendiary Adamses. The College of New Jersey (now Princeton) gave us the
cerebral James Madison and the wily Aaron Burr. King’s College (now Columbia)
took in the bright Caribbean immigrant, Alexander Hamilton. Yale produced no
major political or intellectual leader. It did produce Nathan Hale, the gallant
spy. Hale’s famous last words, “I regret that I have but one life to give for
my country,” were not original with him; they were a line from the most popular
tragedy of the day, Joseph Addison’s Cato .
It is typical of Yale that its founding son did his duty, and quoted a
platitude; it is to Hale’s glory that he backed it up with his life.
The pattern repeated itself in 20th-century literature.
Other elite schools gave us Eliot, Fitzgerald, a gaggle of Beats. Yale gave us
Archibald MacLeish, the Time-Life modernist. Yale also gave us Henry Luce.
Other places innovate; Yale produces the industry standard.
Yale and its graduates are not supposed to shine; they have
other qualities. One is consensus. In the 19th century, Noah Porter, president
of Yale, had a gentlemanly showdown with William Graham Sumner, an atheist
free-marketeer who was one of his professors. Sumner’s economics were fine by
Porter, and by the trustees, but Sumner’s irreligion wasn’t (Porter was an
ordained minister). The two men came to an understanding: Sumner could keep his
job and his religious opinions, so long as he didn’t expound the latter in
class. The entente between God and the dollar reigned at Yale for almost a
Yale is also practical. When John Trumbull, one of America’s
great early painters, was an old man, he turned to Yale for a life-saving deal:
Yale would give him an annuity, and he would leave Yale his paintings, to be
hung in a special Trumbull Gallery. Trumbull had gone to Harvard, but Yale had
the cash, and got the pictures. The muse guided Trumbull’s brush; Yale found
the bricks and mortar.
A third trait of Yale is replication. Many colleges have
informal singing groups-12 to 20 voices, performing light a cappella
repertoires. Yale not only has the oldest such group-the Whiffenpoofs-it has
always had two or three times as many groups as the closest runner-up school.
If Yale finds a good thing, it runs it into the ground. Ron Rosenbaum has been
writing about Skull and Bones, Yale’s premier secret society. But there are a
dozen others. If New York had been planned by a Yale urban designer, it would
have seven Empire State buildings.
Consensus, practicality and replication are the traits of
the established and the well-integrated. Hillary Clinton is drawn to Yale now
for the same reason that ambitious gnomes like Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham
were drawn to its law school decades ago. They wanted to clamber up life’s
ladder; Yale had the rungs. Mrs. Clinton’s speaking engagement has not gone
unprotested. Some students, angered at the prospect of surrendering one of
their last afternoons on campus to this gross opportunist, have proposed a
boycott, which they hope 10 percent of the senior class will join. (Their Web
page is http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jad58/boycotthillary.html.) They are right to
be angry, though they swim against a strong tide of destiny. Yale is the
Columbia River, Mrs. Clinton a panting salmon; they are made for each other.
These, admittedly, are generalizations, though it is also
true that a place like Yale is one to which generalizations most smoothly
apply. But even Yale from time to time produces someone quirky, inner-directed
and obnoxious; a son of a bitch, like John Quincy Adams or Henry David Thoreau.
There is a recent graduate who has conspicuously absented himself from the
tercentenary hoopla: a man who didn’t like his bright college years, and who
resents and resists Old Blue camaraderie. He keeps his friends, but he keeps
his distance from the alma mater. That would be George W. Bush, class of ’68.
Who would have thought that a son of privilege would show such a cantankerous
streak? Maybe he picked it up at Harvard Business School.
Follow Richard Brookhiser via RSS.