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May 11, 2005: Features

Building Community
A new look at one of Princeton’s most famous traditions

By Richard Just ’01

Eating Clubs

(Photographs by Ricardo Barros)

It is often said that Princeton students learn as much from one another as they learn from their professors. That may be true — but only to the extent that undergraduates take full advantage of the people with whom they live, eat, study, and socialize during their four years on campus. That is, it’s true only insofar as Princeton’s undergrads form a true community. And for all the things that have gotten easier about student life at Princeton during the last 50 years — air-conditioning, computers, and meeting members of the opposite sex, to name a few — this is probably one of the few things that has gotten harder. Among past generations of Princetonians, a web of respectful ties among the entire undergraduate population was not very difficult to achieve because the student body wasn’t so wide-ranging — it was largely white, largely wealthy, largely Protestant, and largely from certain elite secondary schools.

A small number of students were excluded from or felt uncomfortable in this homogeneous community. But for the vast majority of Princeton students, the structural barriers to building a tight-knit community were relatively low.

At the new Princeton, the Princeton I graduated from, the threshold for achieving a true community — a community in which students make the most of spending four years surrounded by other future leaders and innovators and intellectuals — is undoubtedly higher. In the last 50 years, Princeton has gone to great lengths to diversify its student body geographically, racially, spiritually, and, most obviously, in terms of gender. These changes have made the endeavor of building a well-connected undergraduate community both vastly more difficult and potentially far more educationally rewarding than ever before. In other words, what Princeton has done during the last few decades is essentially to raise the stakes on the prospects of its undergraduates learning from one another: The barriers to doing so now are higher than they were in the past, but so is the potential payoff.

Woodrow Wilson School professor Stanley Katz suggests thinking about this predicament in terms of the ideas laid out by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone. The Harvard sociologist argued that America’s social capital — the extent to which citizens feel connected to one another through social networks — has declined precipitously since the 1950s. Putnam wrote about two types of social capital: bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital, he wrote, is “inward looking” and tends “to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups.” Bridging social capital, by contrast, is “outward looking” and results when people connect “across diverse social cleavages.” Both kinds of social capital are, of course, necessary to the formation of healthy communities. But not surprisingly, bridging social capital is the harder of the two to create — and in an educational community like Princeton, it is also the more valuable.

To understand how Princeton’s undergraduate community has changed with regard to social capital over the years, I recently spoke to 10 members of the Class of 1951, who entered Princeton 50 years before I did. The undergraduate community they recalled was very different from the one my peers and I experienced. They describe a student body with far fewer divisions, and thus far less need — as well as far less potential — for the creation of bridging social capital.

It’s no surprise, of course, that the entering freshmen of 1947 had fewer divisions along the lines of race and religion (and none at all in gender) than undergraduate classes today. But distinctions among members of the Class of 1951 in the realm of intellectual or extracurricular interests were also much less sharp than they are at today’s Princeton. In the late 1940s, the distinction between athlete and non-athlete seemed less starkly drawn than it is today. Students were more likely to regard athletics, for example, as a casual extracurricular than as a full-blown commitment. “It seemed a nice way to spend an hour and a half in the late afternoon getting some exercise,” says Walter Braham ’51 of his decision to join the swimming team at Princeton. He adds, “At least in swimming, it wasn’t the absolute only thing you could do other than study.” David Adams ’51 wanted to play tennis but discovered, while playing on the freshman team, that he would never be good enough to make varsity. So he joined the lacrosse team for three years instead. John Adams ’51 joined the fencing team — briefly. “I was lousy at it,” he recalls. “Terrible.” In recent years, the Tigers swim team has ranked in the top 25 in the nation; the lacrosse program is consistently among the best in the country; and a Princeton fencer made the quarterfinals of an event at the Athens Olympics. Gone are the days of the casual athlete who dabbled in one or two varsity sports while also pursuing other interests. Today’s athletes are more skilled, more serious, and more dedicated to their sports than previous generations of Princeton students, and — with the demands of training — they are more likely to become set off from the student body.

The shift toward undergraduate specialization may be most noticeable in the realm of athletics, but it has happened everywhere. “We recruit everyone now” — musicians, actors, writers, scientists, says Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History, who served on a task force on admission during the presidency of Harold T. Shapiro *64. To get into an elite school, Grafton suggests, it helps to have a genuinely special talent in a chosen area. Not all Princeton undergrads, of course, are world-class violinists or physicists or thespians, but with the student body’s increased talent has come increased specialization. Forming a class of well-rounded students is no longer the goal of admission officers at elite colleges. Taken as a whole, the student body in 2001 was quite a bit more well-rounded than the student body of 1951. For individual students, however, the reverse is probably true. Just about everyone agrees that this is an example of progress. The old ideal of the “well-rounded man” was frequently a cover for anti-intellectualism — and worse — in college admissions. The new kind of student body raises the possibility of true bridging social capital existing in a college community; after all, in the old classes of homogeneous, well-rounded students, there was, by and large, only bonding social capital to be created. But now that a new kind of social capital is possible, the question is: How do you encourage students to create it?

It’s a challenge that the Class of 1951 barely had to confront. It wasn’t just that, as a group, they weren’t as specialized as undergraduates are today. They were also largely from quite similar backgrounds. That may have made the formation of social capital a less rewarding task; but it also made it much simpler. Princeton drew large swaths of its student body from a relatively small number of elite prep schools: According to the admission office’s September 1947 analysis of the freshman class, for example, exactly one-fourth of the newly admitted freshmen hailed from only six preparatory schools (Exeter, Lawrenceville, Deerfield, Andover, The Hill, and Mercersburg). Many students roomed with their friends from high school — friends with whom they had literally grown up. “It was a natural thing that some of the ones you liked at prep school, you’d end up with,” recalls Braham, one of 15 who matriculated from Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania.

Other students came from public schools, but they were still, by and large, relatively wealthy public schools. To the extent that differences between these groups of students existed at all, they tended to be superficial. Clinton Boxhorn ’51, who went to public school in Rye, N.Y., recalls that prep school students initially were easy to tell apart because “they already dressed like Princeton kids. ... The preppies wore the same stuff all the time, or so it seemed.” He also remembers that the prep school students seemed to be partying all the time, whereas the public school students partied only some of the time. By the end of the first semester, Boxhorn says, the differences were impossible to notice. (The main social cleavage among the Class of 1951 proved to be both fleeting and anomalous in the University’s history: Some of those who enrolled in the fall of 1947 were World War II veterans, who, in the recollection of those who came directly from high school, were distinctly different from the rest of the student body. “They had more of a sense of what was worth doing and what wasn’t,” recalls John Adams. Neil Aschemeyer ’51 puts it this way: “I think those people probably thought that the rest of the class was extremely immature.”)

Some dorm rooms were more expensive than others. As a result, says Richard Valentzas ’51, the grouping of less well-off students together was far from coincidental. “My father was a Greek immigrant,” he recalls. “And my roommate’s father was an Italian immigrant.” At the same time, Richard Hershey ’51 remembers that it was often hard to pinpoint a student’s economic status. He recalls being surprised at the end of his senior year to see which students showed up with the fanciest cars. “Prior to that, there was no really visible way of telling what you might call ‘class,’” he says.

Of course, the Princeton of the late 1940s could be a socially brutal place for those who did not fit in — for the small number of Jewish students, for the minuscule number of minority students, and for those who saw themselves as outside the political or intellectual mainstream. (Even the late George Kennan ’25 commented in his memoir on his pariah status after he was forced to leave Key and Seal Club when he could no longer pay his fees and had to eat in the upperclass Commons: “To eat in this gloomy refectory was a cruel experience, for in those days social distinctions cut deep.”) Aschemeyer, for instance, turned down a bid to join Key and Seal and instead joined Prospect. “I didn’t think of myself as fitting in — and that was for sociopolitical reasons,” he says of his years at Princeton, recalling that he identified himself as a socialist, not a popular designation on campus at the time. William Davis ’51, who was also a member, recalls Prospect as a “bunch of mavericks.” He briefly joined Campus Club, he says, but decided to leave because he was “absolutely appalled” at how poorly students treated the club’s black staff members.

Then, as now, the eating clubs were the center of campus social life — and the main place, at least for upperclassmen, where social capital was formed. And then, as now, the clubs had somewhat distinct identities: Some were viewed as more or less hospitable to athletes; some were perceived, to varying degrees, as more or less prestigious and elite. But in the end, the clubs were dividing up a relatively homogeneous student body into smaller, but still relatively homogeneous, groups. Whatever their other benefits and drawbacks, they were serving a useful role in building community among Princeton’s upperclassmen. “The clubs really did work in terms of bonding capital for a long time,” says Stanley Katz. It’s no surprise, then, that alumni from the Class of 1951 remember them as a force that brought students together. “In the last two years, the eating clubs were a cohesive factor for almost all upperclassmen,” says Williston Benedict ’51. But, he adds, “It was a more socially and economically cohesive time, which I don’t think is necessarily something to be happy about.”

It is striking how little the eating clubs’ structure has evolved since 1951. Most Princetonians still join. (I was in Colonial my junior year and Campus my senior year.) The clubs are still the hub of social life for upperclassmen. They are still the place where most juniors and seniors eat most of their meals. And they still do an effective job of facilitating bonding social capital among Princeton students.

The difference is that while the structure of the club system has remained largely the same during the last 50 years, the student body has become vastly more specialized and diverse underneath it. And so a system that once carved homogeneous groups from a homogeneous student body now carves homogeneous groups from a heterogeneous student body. The stereotypes associated with the clubs shift from year to year, but in any given year they are quite specific. Actors, pot smokers, heavy drinkers, southerners, engineering majors, journalists, water-sport athletes, non-water-sport athletes, Woodrow Wilson School majors, evangelical Christians, Jews, blacks, Latinos, band members, ultimate Frisbee players — all in the course of my four years at Princeton were stereotyped as being more or less welcome at certain clubs. Some of those groups weren’t even represented at the University in 1951. And among those that were, the distinctions were surely more fluid and less concrete.

To take just one example: In a recent survey conducted by the Undergraduate Student Government, about 53 percent of white students responding said they were members of an eating club, compared to only 32 percent of black students. (Minority students were also more likely than white students to cite an “unwelcoming environment” as their reason for not joining.) Or, take another measure: the number of international students in clubs. Seventy members of the Class of 2000 listed foreign addresses in the facebook. Thirty-four of these, or almost half, according to my count, either listed no club affiliation (21) or were members of Terrace (13). Another indicator: The 11 varsity men’s lacrosse players in the Class of 2000 were all in one of two clubs. And that’s not to pick on lacrosse players; you would find similar numbers for many other extracurricular activities.

The residential colleges, into which students are placed arbitrarily for their freshman and sophomore years, seem designed — with their random roommate assignments, abundant common spaces, numerous activities, and resident advisers — to create bridging social capital. (And to the University’s credit, its upcoming creation of a four-year residential college system seems a wise attempt to build on this.) But even as underclassmen take advantage of life in the colleges, the prospect of the self-segregation of the upperclass years looms. In recent years, fraternities and sororities have become an inevitable presence in the daily lives of residential colleges; Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan estimates that about 750 students, or 16 percent of undergraduates, are in a fraternity or sorority. Many of these organizations are linked to specific bicker clubs. “There is, I think, a lot of pressure for freshmen to join these organizations because they see them as giving them particular currency as they bicker particular clubs,” Deignan says. And so the self-segregation of upperclass life at Princeton — and its attendant development of bonding social capital to the exclusion of bridging social capital — often traces its roots to the first weeks of freshman year.

The problem of how to create a community with ties that bond and ties that bridge is not unique to Princeton; it bedevils other schools as well. Given the rise of diverse student bodies at elite colleges, says Katz, “all these places ... are struggling to think what, if any, alternative structures should be put in place.” Indeed, Princeton is, in some respects, much better situated than other schools to further develop a strong community among its undergrads. Harvard and Yale, on the one hand, push their upperclassmen toward less segregated dining arrangements than Princeton does; on the other hand, Katz points out, their undergraduate communities are larger and more unwieldy than Princeton’s.

Plus, Princeton’s relative isolation always has been an advantage of sorts in the building of a strong community; that is another thing that hasn’t changed since 1951. Many of the alumni I spoke with reminded me that without cars, it was nearly impossible to get off campus. “One of the things that has made Princetonians so loyal to the school is that you spent so much time there with the boys,” says Braham. He adds, “It sort of held the place together.” Now many students have cars, but still, few spend much time away from Princeton.

Self-segregation happens everywhere, at every stage of life. It happens in every high school cafeteria and in every college dining hall. It is unavoidable and frequently necessary; the bonding social capital it creates is often healthy. The challenge to an educational community is not to create bridging social capital at the expense of bonding social capital; it is to try to facilitate both.

That said, in speaking to members of the Class of 1951, I began to wonder if during the 50 years between their graduation and mine, the rapid change in the undergraduate student body’s composition hadn’t outstripped the ability of Princeton’s main social institution, the eating clubs, to adjust accordingly. How else to explain the fact that a system that had worked so well to create the only kind of social capital available to Princeton students in 1951 is now blocking, rather than facilitating, the most challenging, educational, and important social capital available to students today?

It is often said that the eating clubs have endured because of the loyalty they inspire among the University’s alumni. That loyalty is understandable — because when older alumni think back on the eating clubs with affection, as many members of the Class of 1951 do, they are recalling a system that worked relatively well in their day. But that system worked well because it more or less maximized the ability of students to create social capital, and therefore maximized what they could learn from their four years at Princeton. Today, that same system, having changed very little even as the student body has changed so much, does the opposite — it restricts the creation of social capital. Princeton’s eating clubs have become an impediment to the very purpose they served in previous generations.

A few months ago, I had an e-mail correspondence with religion professor Jeffrey Stout *76, and in the course of commenting on a different topic he made an observation that struck me as quite relevant to Princeton’s social predicament. “In the old days,” he wrote, “Princeton students expected to be dealing with one another on a face-to-face basis over the course of a lifetime. Most of them were preparing for membership in a relatively small, self-enclosed elite.” The eating clubs prepared them well for this world by maximizing bonding social capital, the kind of social capital on which self-enclosed elites thrive. But Princeton has deposited my classmates and me into a very different world. So it seems worth asking: Did the eating clubs prepare us for that world? Or did they prepare us for the world of 1951? end of article

Richard Just ’01 is editor of The New Republic Online.


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