Yale: A Short History

The College System


  Chap. IV "Of a regular moral behavior." From the LAWS of Yale College, 1787 From the LAWS of Yale College, 1787

The college system

Another essential in Yale's code from the start was the collegiate ideal. That is, young men should eat, sleep, study, play, and worship together, make friends, compete against each other and learn to stand on their own feet, in loyalty always to the larger community. As at Oxford and Cambridge, books were to be but a part of the education. Or, as Yale's younger Timothy Dwight (1886-99) would insist, the truth can be "but dimly seen by the intellect alone."
Whatever the present differences of opinion on this matter, the historic fact is that from the earliest times the College had tried to keep all of its students together - and the youthful society thus formed had promptly and enthusiastically set to work to create its own system of self-improvement, a second or social curriculum.
At first this extra-curriculum consisted largely of mischief, and pranks played on the authorities. Firecrackers and explosions against the President's house were not unknown. The Commons fare gave frequent occasion for disturbance, as witness the Bread and Butter Rebellion of 1828. The "tyranny of the Faculty" was another complaint, and common grievances against the LAWS of Yale College proved a never-failing cement for youthful friendship and solidarity. With the growth in numbers a man's class became the focus of fierce loyalties. Class ceremonies and class privileges, hazing and fagging, Freshman-Sophomore rushes and miscellaneous class warfare taught men their place and duty. And interspersed through the college year a series of quaint and precious ceremonies - such as the Burial of Euclid, Omega Lambda Chi, the Junior Promenade, Tap Day and Bottle Night illuminated the progress of one's social education.
In I753 and I768 the literary and debating societies of Linonia and Brothers in Unity had been founded, and in 1780 a chapter (now the oldest?) of the secret society of Phi Beta Kappa. These were followed in 1812 by a musical society, which grew into the Beethoven Society, which was later joined by the Glee Club and Yale blossomed into a singing college, whose songs spread across the nation, and whose descendants have been warbling Yale's name through the far-flung cities of the Atlantic world. Today the Whiffenpoofs (founded 1909), and a variety of other singing groups, among them a redoubtable Russian Chorus, add lustre to the College's international reputation, while a student symphony orchestra has been applauded in Vienna. Next after oratory and music came the secret societies and organized sports. In 1832 Skull and Bones was founded, to be followed by a second Senior Society, Scroll and Key in 1842, and a colorful host of Sophomore societies and of Freshman or Junior Greek-letter fraternities. By 1900 the disorderly Sophomore societies had joined their Freshman counterparts in oblivion (and for cause). And the Junior fraternities ceased to flourish when the new colleges were built in the early 1930s.

  The 1915 Whiffenpoofs at Mory'sThe 1915 Whiffenpoofs at Mory's  
  The Junior Promenade, 1938 The Junior Promenade, 1938  

Having started as one-year societies and remained non-residential, they had perhaps exercised a less obsessive fascination for our initiates than had their ilk in other colleges. But the Senior societies - choosing late and both able and willing to reward achievement publicly - long dominated the campus and set the tone. (Lately their secret, self-improving society nights have stimulated a number of "underground" organizations, unknown to the authorities or to fame.)
Undergraduate talents for organized activity fairly early found outlets in sports. Kicking a bladder ball had been a colonial pastime, but so damaging to the college windows that finally it had been forbidden. In the young Republic rival sides from the different buildings or classes developed football on the Green, and by the 1840s and the regular Sophomore-Freshman kicking and shoving battles (at times combined with joyous attacks on the city's firemen) generated such tumultuous spectacles that again the authorities frowned.

Yale Crew at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876  
The Flying Wedge, 1894  

In the 1840s the first rowing barges appeared on the Harbor, and in 1852 came a race against Harvard (today remembered as the first intercollegiate contest of any kind in the U.S.). The next year saw the organization of the Yale Navy. In 1865 the Civil War game of baseball was victoriously inaugurated against Wesleyan (score: 39-13). In the 1870s track meets began to be held; and tennis, basketball, hockey, golf, cycling and swimming followed in due order. It was only after many bitter defeats that "Bob" Cook, B.A. 1876, brought back a good rowing style from England, and the habit of victory got established. But, almost from their first rugby-style rush, the sons of Eli poured such intense loyalty and competitive spirit into intercollegiate football that Yale early won preeminence in that warfare. Walter Camp, B.A. 1880, became the "Father of American Football," and Yale player-coaches carried the new gospel to the West. From the late 1870s athletics dominated the undergraduate horizon, and epic victories were celebrated with bonfires under the elms, as the classes roared out their glees from their appointed perches on the old Yale fence.
After World War I this football fever gradually abated, as the minor sports teams (notably swimming) rose to fame, while the benefits of bodily exercise were made available to every undergraduate by a policy of athletics for all. And since the early 1930s Yale's third gymnasium, the vast Payne Whitney "cathedral of sports," has sheltered more different forms of exercise than even the Greeks and Romans could have imagined.

  "Pa" Corbin's 1888 champions.

After thirteen games, score 686-0


Parallel with athletics, a vast array of competitions and literary, oratorical, or dramatic activities were invented to swell the extracurriculum. Especially notable until very recently have been the publications, led by the "Old Lady in Brown" or Lit (believed to be the oldest college monthly, established 1836), by the Banner (1841- ), by the Yale Daily News (which claims to be the Oldest College Daily, 1878- ), and by the Record (1872-?) whose jokes have had a flavor even more antique. Again there were the managerships, Dwight Hall, and a maze of service organizations. "And never could one encounter a society so open or a brotherhood so close."

Back to Resources on Yale History

Contents | The Beginnings | Church and State | The Government of the Faculty | Teaching and Great Teachers | Course of Study
The College System | The Breed of Students | Residential Colleges-and Coeducation | The Making of the University | Recent Developments
Yale's Graduates and the Nation | Rectors and Presidents | Books about Yale | Factual and Statistical Data