The recent controversy over the Princeton eating clubs, which reflects the changes taking place in the attitude of America’s most fashionable university toward social discrimination, is here described by Walter Goodman.
When the Social Register was introduced to America early in this century, it was distinguished not alone for its contents, but for the color of its binding—orange and black, which, as one reporter of the social scene remarked, “suggested the colors of America’s most elegant university.” The institution whose colors did credit even to the Social Register was Princeton, which at the time specialized in presenting higher education and other divertissements to the sons of wealthy and established families of the East and the South.
Even during that high-toned and socially homogeneous era at Princeton, its eating clubs were a source of great disappointment to some students and of concern to some observers. In 1902 a writer in the Alumni Weekly concluded an article on the clubs with these words: “It is a perplexing question and some day it is going to give us trouble.”
The clubs have been giving trouble ever since, in a relatively quiet way. This year the trouble was somewhat noisier than usual. Since the 1949-50 term, every Princeton sophomore who sought admission to an eating club for his junior and senior years (virtually the entire sophomore class) had, in fact, managed to get in somewhere. But when the bids were closed last February, twenty-three students—about half of them Jewish—had still not received an invitation to what they felt was a suitable club. Fifteen Jewish students signed the following statement: “I feel I have been discriminated against because of race or religion.” The story was quickly picked up by the press, and in the following days the New York Post was able to indulge its fondness for the four-and-five-column headline: Princeton’s Bias Battle On Again; How It Feels To Be an “Outcast” At Princeton; Adl And Student Group Join Attack On Princeton Bias. “Trouble” for a financial, religious, or educational body is frequently synonymous with unfavorable publicity; the story was spread by the wire services, and Princeton was clearly in trouble.1
The first of the present-day eating clubs was founded in 1879, just about the time that the faculty’s thirty-year fight against fraternities was being won and the Greek-letter societies were banished from Princeton. The pleasures of communal dining had long been recognized by Princeton’s undergraduates; small, informal eating clubs had existed almost from the founding of the university, before the Revolutionary War. In an article on the clubs’ history in the January 1955 issue of Social Problems, Dean A. Allen tells us that a handful of boys simply made a year’s agreement with some town housekeeper to take their meals together. As time went on, these groups became better organized; they adopted names and continued season after season. A fortuitous boost for the club system came in 1856, with the burning down of the college refectory. Students who didn’t attach themselves to some club had to get their meals where they could in the small town of Princeton. The inconvenience of foraging, not to mention the quality of the food available in the neighborhood, made the clubs almost indispensable, and by the time the refectory was rebuilt, twenty years later, they were solidly established features of the Princeton campus. Some designed special hats in the club colors which were ceremoniously passed on to new members; some wore orange and black jerseys and golfing suits.
In 1879, a loan from a wealthy alumnus enabled a group of upperclassmen first to rent, then to buy a building to be used as a permanent eating club, hire a steward and other servants, and get a charter from the State of New Jersey as a private corporation. Other groups followed this lead, and in a few years the clubs became so important a part of the school’s life that a student’s social status could be measured by which club accepted him—while those who were not accepted at all became an increasingly unenvied company.
The situation was disturbing enough by 1907 for the new president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson, to advance the idea of a “quad plan”—presently in operation at Harvard. By this proposal, students of all four classes and unmarried faculty members would be housed together in dormitories which would contain eating facilities, libraries, and common rooms in addition to sleeping quarters. Alumni and trustee resistance to contributing funds for the destruction of the clubs, which continued to hold their loyalties, was responsible for the rejection of President Wilson’s plan.
Still, changes were in the air, and within a very few years the freshman and sophomore eating clubs were abolished. Dean Allen quotes the observation of one “loyal club alumnus” regarding the class which entered Princeton the year of the abolition: “The remarkable unity developed by this group was no doubt due to the fact that they were not divided into small eating clubs in either of their first two years, and there were no colored-hat followings nor other outward markings to set one man apart from his brother.”
The implications of this observation were not extended to the upper-class clubs, which continued to flourish. By 1917, more than half of the upperclassmen were members of one of the sixteen existing clubs. A petition signed that year by a large number of sophomores (led by Grover Cleveland’s son) declared that none would join clubs as a matter of principle. The gesture represented a growing feeling of unease, but the proportion of students entering clubs continued to climb. In 1925, according to the Alumni Weekly, about 60 per cent of the upperclassmen joined some club; in 1930, it was more than two-thirds; in 1935, it was almost three-quarters; and in 1940, only 20 per cent of the upperclassmen were not in some eating club.
Exclusiveness became more obnoxious to the university authorities as it became less exclusive. When half of the university was made up of outsiders, there was no problem; when it was only one-fifth, it became a serious problem. The administration, which had traditionally taken an attitude of amiable non-interference toward the clubs, was now moved to act on behalf of the rejected 20 per cent. By exerting a dignified amount of discreet interference in club affairs in 1941, they were able to achieve the 100 per cent election of sophomores. There were many complaints. Alumni were particularly irritated at the 100 per cent philosophy, and they were joined by a minority of the student body. But the precedent had been set, and, possibly strengthened by wartime slogans, it was followed in 1942 and 1943. In 1944, the last year before the clubs were shut down for the duration of the war, 99.5 per cent of the eligibles were admitted.
After the war and postwar commotion had subsided, the club issue was brought up again—this time by the sophomore class of 1949-50. In a move reminiscent of 1917, some 600 of its 750 members signed a petition resolving that no one would join any club unless every sophomore got a bid. Club leaders were annoyed at the coercion; alumni were indignant; the university administration sympathized with the principles of the petition, deplored the pressure, and avoided committing itself in public to anything. Despite the resentment, all sophomores got bids to clubs that year.
Each year after 1949, right up until 1958, the 100 per cent goal, quietly encouraged by the administration, was met. The clubs first went through their customary “bicker” period, at which desired members received their invitations. The remaining uninvited twenty to forty students would then be scattered among the clubs, either by a form of lottery or by the persuasive powers of sophomore leaders.
But the informal 100 per cent system pleased only the administration, which in this way was escaping responsibility for dealing with a complicated and potentially embarrassing situation. The “100-per-centers,” those two or three dozen boys who became club members simply because the residue had to be disposed of, were in a painful position. During the bicker period, many tried to persuade athletic acquaintances to help them get into some club. Those who failed or who had no athletic acquaintances, were thrown upon the mercies of their social betters. The club officers who had been given the job of carrying out the unofficial university policy asked repeatedly for the establishment of alternative dining facilities. This would have freed them of the onus of providing for the socially unattractive and freed their members of the obligation to eat in the same room with a man just because he happened to have been admitted to Princeton. When this suggestion was put forward by the Inter-Club Committee Chairman in 1956—accompanied by a threat to hold a “natural” bicker, with no 100 per cent obligation—President Harold W. Dodds expressed his “confidence in the capacity of the undergraduates themselves to conduct club elections satisfactory to all. . . .” This reply was generally interpreted by students as throwing the ball back to them, and many expressed their discontent with what they felt was simple evasion.
In 1956, too, student spokesmen proposed setting up a new club which, it was feared, would almost certainly have become in effect a Jewish club, thus providing an excuse for the existing clubs to take in even fewer Jews. The establishment of Jewish fraternities at many universities has had precisely this effect. After some discussion, the plan for a new club, untempting as it was to most Jewish students, was shelved. Had it been adopted, Princeton might have been saved a good deal of unpleasantness, since the problem of discrimination would have been camouflaged. Instead of a new club, President Dodds sponsored a small campus dining room for those upperclassmen who did not desire to go through the rigors of bicker. Located on a separate part of campus, Woodrow Wilson Lodge was physically as well as spiritually removed from Princeton’s social life and not destined to amount to very much.
Despite the nine consecutive years of 100 per cent bickers, everyone had realized for some time that the goal was becoming increasingly difficult of attainment. Perhaps the most important obstacle was the appearance of a far more diverse student body than Princeton had ever before known—or particularly wanted to know. The new kind of students were to play a large part in changing the emphasis of education at Princeton from the social to the intellectual. William P. Jacobs, who began teaching biology at the university soon after the war, recalls that he was startled by the sight of his first class: “It was like looking at a roomful of siblings.” This soon began to change. For one thing, many more young men were getting a chance to go to a private college. From 1921 to 1941, reports a dean, “we were never forced to refuse admission to boys with good character testimonials and adequate scholastic preparation.” (In those days, notes E. Digby Baltzell in The Philadelphia Gentlemen, Old Nassau was by far the most fashionable of the Ivy League schools among the Philadelphia upper strata.) In 1941, Princeton had only 795 completed applications for its 750 places; in 1957 it had about 3,400.
Although the sons of Princeton graduates are still highly favored by the admission procedures (about 75 per cent of those who apply are accepted compared to 40 per cent of the completed applications as a whole, and they make up more than 15 per cent of the entering class), the college today takes boys from a much wider geographical area, as well as many more products of public schools. While more than three-quarters of the 1941 entering class came from prep school, by 1953 the figure was down to a little over half. Princeton drew students from 210 schools in 1941 compared to 380 schools in 1953. Along with this trend has gone a rising percentage of Jewish undergraduates. Before the war, Princeton had the smallest proportion of Jews of any major Eastern college—only 2 per cent in 1936. Soon after the war it rose to 7 per cent, and at present Jews make up about 14 per cent of the student body—more than the average New England university.
Changes in attitudes have, not surprisingly, accompanied the change in make-up. In 1932, Professors Daniel Katz and K. W. Braly gave one hundred Princeton students a list of ten ethnic groups and asked them to check five attributes “most applicable” to each group. The students responded by placing the familiar labels in the familiar places, and the study was thereafter cited as “an example of the extent to which even college students subscribe to the stereotypes and prejudices current in our culture.” In 1950, the same test was given to 333 students who had been born around 1932. Although certain stereotypes about Negroes and Jews were found to “persist to a fair degree,” the conclusion was that “the present generation of college students is more reluctant than the previous generation to make stereotyped generalizations about the character of ethnic groups, especially those with whom they have little contact. Some students regard it as almost an insult to their intelligence to be required to make such generalizations while others do so with considerable reservations.”
It is a truism that alumni tend to hold less advanced ideas in any given area than members of the current student body. Princeton alumni led the fight almost a century ago in favor of the fraternities, and vocal alumni opinion has been critical of the 100 per cent system which the majority of undergraduates have backed in spirit. Since they own the club buildings, contribute to their support, and, as graduate members, play a part in directing their operations, alumni opinion is not an academic matter. (Academic matters, by the way, seem to be a minor concern of those alumni who maintain their club ties into middle age and beyond.) In 1955, sixteen of the seventeen clubs supported a plan that would have assigned “leftover” sophomores to clubs on an equitable rotation basis; ten of the club alumni boards, however, were reported opposed to the idea. Until a few years ago, the alumni boards participated directly in the process of selecting members; this was ended by the administration.
Nor has alumni discontent in recent years been confined to the club system alone. There has been dissatisfaction as well with Princeton’s changing admission standards, which have kept out some of the less gifted alumni offspring. A 1930 graduate whose son was refused admission concluded a lengthy letter to the Alumni Weekly with this threat: “If Princeton is to survive as a private institution, it is going to need money and plenty of it. Its major source of supply for that money will always be its alumni. Accordingly, it would be good judgment on the part of the staff to show a less condescending attitude toward the acceptance of alumni sons who measure up to reasonable admission standards and to go slow in reversing the policy of admitting a large percentage of preparatory school boys, which policy was followed . . . when most of the present alumni were at Princeton.”
The man’s point was well taken: Princeton is poorly endowed in comparison to Harvard and Yale—with about one-fourth of Harvard’s and one-third of Yale’s endowment. In any event, a reluctance to further affront already annoyed alumni has certainly played a part in the administration’s cautious approach to the club system.
This then was the position at the beginning of bicker in February 1958. The social life of Princeton’s upperclassmen was centered in seventeen eating clubs—which pursued none of the more famous pastimes of fraternities on other campuses, such as lethal initiations; nor did the boys sleep at their clubs. The spacious, elegantly appointed houses—mansions compared to the ordinary fraternity dwelling—did, however, serve as congregating places for members in their leisure hours. Parties, outings, sports events—all were organized through the clubs. They ranged from prestige-ful Ivy, whose president, Steven Rockefeller, son of Nelson, was also president of the Inter-Club Committee, to Prospect, a cooperative group, whose members waited on tables themselves. Ivy had two Jewish members—one of them captain of the lacrosse team. Prospect was half Jewish; its president, Myron Margolin.
While the social-athletic standards of Ivy, and perhaps two other prestige clubs, have kept most Princetonians from aspiring so high, and the undiscriminating policy of Prospect has offered little to any but the socially resigned, the large group of middling clubs in between has been vulnerable to the pressure for 100 per cent. These are the clubs which have felt a need for quotas to keep from becoming a repository for the sedentary studious from undistinguished homes, a group that includes many Jews. The dilemma is described by a former bicker chairman in The Unsilent Generation,2 edited by Otto Butz, an assistant professor at Princeton, which contains the confessions and life views of eleven seniors:
The class of 1959 at Princeton, which we were considering in the club elections, had the distinction, I understand, of having more Jews in it and proportionately fewer prep-school graduates than any other class in Princeton’s history. While I do have a distinct preference for prep-school graduates, many of my friends are not from prep school and I am not strongly opinionated on the subject. Similarly, I have many Jewish friends and am not personally prejudiced against Jews except in the realm of international politics. But as club Bicker chairman I was faced with a deplorable situation. According to Princeton’s social standards, there were appallingly few “good men” available. The “name” of one’s club depends in large measure upon the number of prep-school graduates and tweed-clad extroverts that are among its members. The Princeton club is primarily for the social side of life. There is no room for the nondrinker, the silent introvert, or the man who spends so much time on studies that he neglects the social life which is so much a part of college. Whatever my personal prejudice, or lack of it, I had to resist the admission to the club of those types who by the accepted traditional standards were not suitable for a social organization. Such persons were generally brilliant high-school graduates who had to combat the handicap of inadequate secondary-school preparation by concentrating on academic work to the exclusion of most other pursuits. Even the so-called prejudice against Jews, I found, was not so much an opposition to them as such, as to the fact that most of them (either because they were “grinds” or because they felt ill at ease among prep-school socialites) were simply poor mixers and did not fit well into a purely social organization.
Jewish members have themselves often proved to be as eager as their non-Jewish fellows to prevent their clubs from acquiring the “Jewish club” label which stigmatizes Prospect. One club reportedly adopted a “buddy system,” whereby a Jewish student would be admitted only if he brought along a non-Jewish friend. It is widely, and openly, acknowledged that in this year’s bicker five clubs set more or less rigid quotas. The president of one such club justified the practice as follows: “A quota, when fairly applied, is only an approximation; it is not a fixed number or percentage. It is a flexible guide designed to prevent a disproportionate concentration of one minority group in one club. I do not believe that a club which uses a flexible quota to insure that its sections will include a cross-section of the sophomore class should be condemned for discriminatory practices. An all-Jewish club is the worst possible thing which could happen at Princeton. Christian and Jewish students realize this.”
In a reply to this position, a prominent Jewish senior pointed out that no quota had ever been applied to other sorts of minorities, such as athletes or Southerners, that few clubs approximate a cross-section of the student body, and that quota systems, in fact, serve to encourage the formation of an all-Jewish club, made up of rejects.
The club president countered, somewhat apologetically, that the clubs with quotas were possibly the least discriminatory: they, at any rate, were considering enough Jews as potential members to be concerned over the danger of becoming predominantly Jewish.
The dispute remains unresolved, but as the quotas have worked out in practice they have been well below the percentage of Jewish students at the university; the latter have thus been competing among themselves to gain admission to some dining room other than Prospect’s.
Considering the strength of the alumni pressures to maintain social standards as opposed to the changing composition of the Princeton class and its attitudes, it is a tribute to student and administration powers of manipulation that 100 per cent was obtained for nine bickers in a row. But the times were clearly against its continuance.
The shot that blew up the 100 per cent goal for 1958 was fired by Prospect president Myron Margolin. He declared at the beginning of the bicker period that Prospect would this year be open to all students. This apparently generous measure was a move in Margolin’s avowed intention to break the bicker system. His announcement gave the Inter-Club Committee, made up of the seventeen club presidents, who effectively control their respective constituencies, the opportunity to shed the 100 per cent burden—or so it seemed. Steven Rockefeller, acting for the club presidents, lost no time in declaring that every sophomore had now received a bid to a club since Prospect would take all those whom the other clubs did not; hence, 100 per cent had been achieved automatically, without the need for any persuasion. A different interpretation, however, was put forward by Margolin. He said his club was now open to students who “wish to join”; those who did not wish to join could not, in all justice, be said to have received a legitimate bid. The ICC responded that in its eyes a bid was a bid, and any students who did not take advantage of the Prospect invitation could eat at Wilson Lodge, the notably unsociable university facility.
Thus, this year’s bicker started out in a more confusing way than usual. Bicker, which takes up two weeks in February, is always a strenuous time at Princeton. As Dean Allen has observed, “Tension is high and academic work low during bicker weeks.” Committees from all the clubs visit sophomores in their rooms. The young eligibles, freshly showered and shaved, stand inspection for height, good posture, poise, an outgoing—but not offensively outgoing—personality, and related traits. No bidding is permitted until the last three nights of bicker, but there is a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes jostling and maneuvering by club officers to obtain the most desirable young men for their dining rooms.
Most sophomores get a fair notion of their fate quite early, from the frequency and duration of the committee visits. One rejected student describes his feelings: “You sit around waiting for the people from the eating clubs to come to see you and decide if they want you. If a club’s interested, they send one person after another to interview you. If no club is interested no one comes and you know you’re not wanted.”
Just getting a bid, while it might be an accomplishment for a Jewish or an unassuming non-Jewish student, is not always enough for one who sets a high estimate on his own social standing. As one present senior has written of his experience: “The club that I wanted was the one that had the reputation for the best bunch of drinkers and for the group of men who were the most amusingly vulgar. . . . Yet when the ‘Hour of Truth’ arrived, they extended me no bid. I did receive an acceptance but it was from another club further down the hierarchy. The club of my first choice had not wanted me! The whole experience was a trauma.”
As Bicker drew to an end with the Margolin-Rockefeller controversy over semantics still unsettled, tempers began to warm up. James F. Ridgeway, chairman of the Daily Princetonian (a position equivalent to editor-in-chief) laid blame for the situation on the ICC and warned Prospect not to become a scapegoat for the sins of the other clubs. He wanted to make certain the responsibility for 100 per cent still rested with all the seventeen clubs, not just one. This editorial brought about an ICC decision to “ignore” the Daily Princetonian thereafter. Steven Rockefeller accused the paper’s editors of taking a “negative,” “critical” attitude toward the ICC, of not striving to “cooperate.” The ICC, he told them, could carry out a more successful bicker without their assistance. Harassed as he was by circumstances, Rockefeller may be forgiven for committing the naive public relations man’s error of trying to put an end to a disagreeable affair by putting an end to newspaper stories and comment about it. In any event the stories continued.
“Open house,” the final bidding period of the bicker, took place on Saturday and Sunday, February 8 and 9. Late Saturday afternoon, Rockefeller told a special sophomore class meeting that despite signs of difficulty in attaining 100 per cent, the goal could still be reached—if everyone cooperated with the ICC. The call for cooperation was interpreted widely as a plea to the “100-per-centers” to settle for Prospect.
At 7:30 P.M. the clubs opened their doors to receive the fortunate sophomores who had been placed. “For the unsuccessful ones,” wrote a Princetonian reporter, “things became more and more tense as they went from one club to another to see how they stood.” At around nine, the unplaced sophomores began to gather on the back porch of the Ivy Club, while the ICC met within, trying to work out a solution. There were forty-two men without bids on the first count. Shortly after 11 P.M., Dean of Students William D’O. Lippincott, ’41, who had helped to engineer the 100 per cent successes in past years, arrived. By midnight, five 100-per-centers were in the clubs.
“For the rest of the group, though,” the Princetonian report continues, “it was a sad evening. Instead of the happy section parties going on at the other clubs, the men on the porch were talking in subdued tones to each other and to friends. Most of the coffee and sandwiches that the club provided were eaten by people helping out. The men without bids were not hungry.” After a Harvard Crimson reporter was discovered on the porch, with a camera, the “central headquarters committee” ordered the doors closed. “This immediately gave rise to the idea that the porch was a ‘cage.’ Even the men not in clubs began referring to themselves as ‘cagers.’”
Sometime during the night at least one Jewish 100-per-center was told: “We’d love to have you, but our quota is filled,” and at midnight about a dozen of the remaining thirty-seven sophomores presented a written protest to the ICC, claiming that they were being railroaded into Prospect because of racial discrimination against them in the other clubs. Rockefeller, who is said to have been the most strenuous battler for 100 per cent during the entire affair, reportedly used this accusation to spur his fellow members of ICC to work harder to get everyone into a club. But two hours later, the ICC, which met almost continuously through the night, replied that “racial or religious discrimination by one club—even if proved—was no reason for refusing a bid from another.” At 2:10 A.M., the head of the Sophomore Bicker Committee came down to the dining room, to which the thirty-seven leftovers had been moved when the porch grew too cold. “Open House has been suspended indefinitely,” he told them. “The ICC will take no responsibility for those who have refused to take bids to Prospect. They consider any reasons for refusing as invalid.” (Fourteen of the men either found belated places in one of the clubs or went tiredly to Prospect or Wilson Lodge, thus leaving the unclubbed number at twenty-three. One more disappeared in the following days—it is rumored that he transferred to Harvard—bringing the final total of clubless men to twenty-two.)
Having thus dismissed the students, the ICC officials went on to issue two more statements which, conceived of necessity and phrased in weariness, had a ring of honesty about them. After denying that the failure of 100 per cent was “necessarily” their fault, they went on: “It is wrong to admit boys to Princeton and to lead them to believe that they have a right to join selective organizations. The idealism of 100 per cent is just this. It has raised aspirations and expectations only to have them trampled upon and turned into discouragement, bitterness, and suffering. Selectivity is not necessarily wrong. One hundred per cent is not wrong. But the present system of club selectivity with no acceptable alternative plus 100 per cent is wrong. In other words, 100 per cent has led to the false assumption that everyone has the right to membership in a selective organization; and this is a false assumption because 100 per cent is incompatible with the exclusive nature of Princeton’s selective upper-class eating clubs.”
In a third statement, the club presidents took up the accusation of discrimination: “The ICC recognizes the right of every club to be selective. Selectivity implies the right of a club to impose a religious quota if it so desires. The ICC does not approve of religious and racial discrimination, but has no power to control the bicker policy of individual clubs. Ultimate responsibility for religious and racial discrimination rests with individual members of the individual clubs.”
The Undergraduate Council, the Student Christian Association, and several students and faculty members responded by denouncing religious discrimination. Steven Rockefeller termed the whole situation “regrettable.” Robert F. Goheen, serving his first year as Princeton’s president, said he had heard allegations of discrimination and that he deplored the practice. He pointed to the “important contribution” which the clubs make to the university by permitting “men having common interests . . . [to] dine together and enjoy the society of their fellows in congenial groups of relatively small size.” On the other hand, he acknowledged that “excessive disruption occurs . . . when membership or lack of membership in clubs becomes an all-absorbing and overriding concern.”
On February 22, President Goheen spoke at the first annual meeting of the National Alumni Association to be held since he took office. He offered plans there for the construction of an integrated group of buildings which would provide dormitory rooms for 600 students, apartments for single faculty members, dining and social facilities for about 250 students, a library, and recreation rooms. Although alumni enthusiasm has still to prove itself with the cash for the project, student response has been universally favorable. Once there is an adequate alternative to the clubs, it is felt by some at least, they can be as selective and as exclusive as they like with no qualms of conscience; no student need henceforth be an outsider.
Certainly, once the club monopoly on social life is broken, the cruelty of discrimination will be mitigated. Moreover, the ICC, led by Steven Rockefeller, has now altered its position on quotas and has accepted responsibility for the elimination of discrimination from all clubs. And the administration has endorsed the new stand. At the very least, it is hoped, this year’s unpleasant end-of-bicker scene will not be repeated.
But the attitudes revealed in the recent commotion will not be changed quickly. One of the contributors to The Unsilent Generation writes, without irony:
In the exclusive suburb of the Midwestern metropolis where we live . . . there are no business buildings, stores, gas stations, or anything else which might detract from the beauty of the well-tended homes. We have no police force, fire department or city government of any form. Our informal town commission has stipulated that in the deed of every home there be a clause which obligates the owner not to sell his property to a Negro or Jew. My parents belong to the country club, the athletic club, the university club, and other social organizations whose membership is restricted to the acceptable people in the area. Until I went to preparatory school I had never really known any Jewish individuals. I had gathered that they were the sort of people one stayed away from.
A high proportion of Princeton’s undergraduates continue to come from a similar background, and for these boys the dining clubs provide a spirit very like the one in which they grew up. The reason they hesitate to admit Jews into this environment is their belief that most Jews come from different sorts of homes. This is not really accurate when applied to Princeton’s Jewish students, but the prevalent feeling is that they are “grinds”—overstudious, unpoised, ill-trained in the social graces, and so on: they would not contribute to the club spirit; they would be uncomfortable among the socially more adept students and would, in turn, make everyone else somewhat uncomfortable. The bias is as much an expression of anti-intellectualism as of anti-Jewishness. About seventy-five Jewish sophomores did join clubs this year; of sixteen National Merit Scholarship winners, seven were not accepted by any club.
That boys in their late teens and early twenties should seek in college the kind of companions they have known all their lives is not astonishing. Nor is the fact that although most proclaim the benefits of a Princeton education, in their social affairs they seek reassurance rather than experiment. As the bicker chairman quoted above writes:
It is possible, I feel, that the club system, whatever its inherent evils, has a greater place at Princeton than the brilliant but colorless and socially ill-at-ease individual who spends his four college years closeted in a library or laboratory. It may sound snobbish to say it, but I think the university should remember the types who have given it not only its support but also its honored name. To me, the “country club” appellation sometimes flung at Princeton is no more than the envious viciousness of the socially self-conscious individual who resents the idea that you can be superbly educated and have fun with your friends at the same time.
(On his first contact with students from state universities during a Naval ROTC cruise, this fellow found them to be “hulking denizens . . . narrow-minded, humorless, unreasonably contemptuous of Ivy Leaguers, incapable of deep thought and above all boring.” After getting to know them better, he decided they were “more cosmopolitan and personally less dull.” He adds: “It seems strange that one must learn to get along with fellow Americans, but that was my problem. . . .”)
Jewish students, then—along with some others—have been discriminated against not so much because they were born Jews but because they were raised in poorer families, less firmly established in America, with values and ways different from those of the traditional Princetonian. Nobody hates Jews at Princeton; perhaps no one even positively dislikes them. Campus opinion seems agreed that the existing club system is unfair. Even the head of the Graduate Interclub Council, who left Princeton forty years ago, believes that the clubs should “select congenial men without regard to race or religion.” It is just that Jews—particularly those from New York City with high I.Q.’s and unfashionable tastes in dress—have the reputation of being less congenial than non-Jews.
Whatever the cause, some Jewish sophomores are out of the social swim, and it hurts. Just as it would take an unusual man bearing the name Rockefeller not to be received into Ivy, so it takes an unusual man of any name not to want to be a member of some club. “You have to care,” one of the Jewish students told a newspaper reporter. “This is the social system at Princeton. If you’re not in a club, you’ve been rejected. You’ve got a stigma attached to you.”
This nineteen-year-old boy who had to care was probably hurt more severely than he would have been at one of the other Ivy League schools. A Harvard undergraduate, for example, reporting on the 1958 bicker in a Harvard Crimson article entitled “The Quest at Princeton for the Cocktail Soul,” summed up his view of the affair as follows: “An outsider observing Bicker finds it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. The enormous anxieties generated in every member of the sophomore class, the superficiality and downright silliness of its standards and ceremonies, the blatant injustices of the values and principles the system inculcates—all would seem ludicrous in any civilized community, but they are doubly comic when set in one of the nation’s greatest universities and practiced by what is supposed to be a substantial segment of this generation’s intellectual elite.”
These sentiments are probably shared by a great many Princeton students, but they are in a sense trapped by their school’s past reputation. Princeton’s social machinery is a legacy of the days when it was primarily a college for a social elite. This has changed, and is continuing to change. Princeton is well along now in the process of shedding its reputation as an institution devoted to the good social life and has become a first-rate place of learning. The 1955 graduate who recently defended the free, all-holds-barred bicker, on the ground that it would help accustom students to the realities of competitive selection early in life, was misreading his realities. The club machinery is no longer suitable for most of the young men it must serve, or for their world, and the administration is now pledged to renovate it. In three or four years, if plans go on schedule, Princeton will more accurately reflect the larger American society.
As for the boys who were hurt, they of course arouse sympathy, but in part, too, their pain comes from a too-ready acceptance of the club system’s own values. As another of The Unsilent Generation contributors, a Catholic, writes:
Sophomore year I joined an eating club. I found out a lot about myself that I had been blind to since arriving at Princeton. I was not a Joe College. I still lacked the polish of my contemporaries. . . . The exclusive clubs wouldn’t look at me. I was not tweedy, I realized. I was not smooth. . . . I joined a club of no particular distinction. . . . Something was wrong with me. . . .
Nineteen-year-old boys should not be put to a test where the odds are all against them. But if, along with the pain, some of the rejected students—Jews and non-Jews—draw the strength to resist values which go so ill with the ideals of a university and of the nation as a whole, and conclude that something is wrong with the system rather than with themselves, perhaps they will have gotten an unlooked-for increment from their Princeton education.
1 The unpleasantness was aggravated by two other recent events which had placed Princeton in the glaring light of newspaper publicity—a speech on campus by Alger Hiss in 1956, and the dismissal from the academic community last summer of the Reverend Dr. Hugh Halton, a Roman Catholic priest with highly critical and extravagantly expressed feelings about the declining moral standards of the university.
2 Rinehart, 188 pp., $2.95.