On the Saturday of eating club pick-ups I was sitting in my common room surrounded by the dizzying energy of newly accepted sophomore bickerees. All of them had just gotten into their respective eating clubs. The next few minutes were somewhat of a blur to me. Members’ fists banged against our door, shaving cream was sprayed all over our common room, and one by one, they were all picked up and taken to Prospect Street. When everybody was gone, it suddenly hit me that everything was about to change. Soon, we would be creating new, peripheral friend networks with the other members of our clubs—people who chose to join this club either out of convenience or because of the club’s stereotype. The eating club process was finally bringing our differences to light. Across campus another friend, hosed by the club of her choice, traveled home to recover.
It was just one week before that these same sophomores were sitting in my common room, nervously tugging at their hair and preparing themselves for bickering. Some were discussing which outfits to wear for bicker—in the case of some, this meant strategically picking shoes that could withstand intense moisture, snow, and beer spillage, yet still not appear sloppy. Some girls were flipping through bicker guides prepared for them by upperclassmen friends. I overheard two sophomore boys in Frist struggling to come up with five interests to write down on a pre-bicker survey.
Ever since my first Frosh Week at Princeton—where it seemed that the only way to meet people was to enter the muddy snake pit behind Cloister—I got the sense that the eating clubs were the social center of Princeton. It had become clear to me that my entire social existence was in anticipation of the eating clubs. My friends were joining Greek organizations and cultivating friendships with upperclassmen so that they could obtain passes to clubs. This year, with the Greek-life ban, the University is trying to reduce this pressure. However, by attempting to get rid of Greek life, the University is only treating a symptom, and not the disease. The “social stratification” that the ban was meant to target is consummated by joining an eating club.
We all come to Princeton with a practically blank slate, eager to form new friendships—though some people come with more of a preexisting social network than others. For example, my freshman year roommate had attended the nearby Lawrenceville School, and already had ways to obtain eating club passes from her upperclassman friends, but being placed in randomized residential colleges helped equalize these differences.
My view of social development is aptly summarized by an oversimplified, clichéd metaphor: Our friendships form much like circles when you drop a pebble into still water. The circles are small at first, but soon begin to expand, and converge with other people’s social circles. These collide and create infinite fractals of intersecting friendships, like a handful of pebbles arbitrarily thrown into this water. What I mean by this is that the social contacts we form are random and serendipitous, yet they follow some semblance of natural, physical laws, only under our control to a certain degree. (Apologies if this metaphor is bringing back bitter memories from your 6th grade poetry writing class).
It seems to me that most people don’t see their social development like that. Instead, they prefer to redefine these puddles, and break the natural progression of these circles by placing obtrusions (i.e. eating clubs) into the puddles. These obtrusions reinforce the preexisting networks—the networks that attracted my roommate to the Ivy Club.
Whenever I discuss my views on eating clubs with my friends, they argue that “in real life” people “naturally segregate themselves.” Exclusivity is a price they feel they must pay for a sense of belonging, and perhaps this is just human nature. But my question is this— does a system like that belong on a college campus? Princeton is literally (literally) producing the future leaders of the world. They come here to experience personal growth, not only by taking their EM and EC distribution requirements, but also by meeting people of different backgrounds. Woodrow Wilson (sorry to quote a morally questionable white dude) said that people at Princeton should be exposed to “unchosen contacts,” meaning that their friends should be the people they are randomly selected to live with (hence the residential college system). Living and eating together was as important to this university as the precept system. These random living/eating situations help people acclimate to the college setting on a level playing field and allows us to meet people of all different backgrounds. Yale and Harvard saw the wisdom of this plan, but at Princeton, Wilson’s idealism and failure to compromise lead to its defeat, and on campus we were left with the 100-year legacy of a system that has just reinforced the social stratification that already exists beyond the FitzRandolph Gates. In my opinion, if a University’s goal is to produce the economic, political and social leaders of our country, then it a responsibility to ensure that its graduates have had the greatest opportunities to share perspectives. The self-selection that occurs on Prospect, whether by Bicker or sign-in, can be found in country clubs and social organizations for people our parents’ age—what place do they have on a campus dedicated to expanding one’s social as well as intellectual horizons?
A crucial difference between the exclusive and sign-in clubs is that for one of them, their excitement is designed to be at the expense of other people’s misery. Whether people are rejected from the clubs or just not able to join because of bad timing, the social separations begin to occur. The expanding circles of our pond are now being disrupted by physical walls, some paneled in fine woods, surrounding aged and moist taprooms.
As I witnessed my friend this weekend crushed by peer rejection, it is extraordinary to me that my friends can witness the real-life human repercussions of this system—on either an emotional or moral level—and not be saddened and angered by it.
Maybe one of the reasons we do not often speak out against the system is because many do not believe an end is achievable. President Tilghman, like the century of Princeton presidents before her, failed to entirely replace the dominance of Prospect Street with the four-year residential college system. Tilghman admitted that the clubs are a major reason that accepted applicants turn Princeton down. Just after her retirement, she said, “ If I could be queen for a day…I would love to create a residential system for undergraduates in which students were members of residential colleges for all four years and every student had an affiliation with an eating club, so it’s just part of the experience of every single Princeton student.”
But President Tilghman wasn’t Queen for a Day—she was Queen for a Decade. Because of her fear of losing some alumni support, Tilghman (and her predecessors) didn’t truly confront the issue. They settled for compromise—and seeming hypocrisy—providing University subsidy in financial aid for those wishing to join clubs. Undergirding this double standard was the simple reality: the University depends on the clubs to feed its students.
As I write this article, I am sitting on the second floor of Chancellor Green, overlooking the central stone courtyard. It is Saturday, and I keep seeing large groups of excited sophomores—who have just gotten picked up—hopping over to the street with their groups. Although my physical vantage point makes it appear that I feel morally superior to them, that’s not the case. I am a part of an eating club, too, but my eating club, now the most populated on the Street, had to close its doors to all those that made the fatal mistake of considering other options first.
My purpose in writing this article is not to point fingers at those involved in eating clubs, or even to vilify those who were involved in the process of hosing. I am in the same boat as you—the eating clubs are encoded into the DNA of our school, and we are just trying to work with the system. I mean, nobody wants to eat alone in a bathroom stall like Cady Herron.
After seeing all of my friends leave my dorm room last Saturday to go off to their respective clubs, it finally hit me that things were about to change. We are all very different people—one identifies himself as “frat star,” one a California “hippie,” one is a gifted athlete, one a brilliant Shapiro scholar, and one is a talented Nassoon. Brought together fall of freshman year by chance, we have slowly been wedged apart by our quests for eating club passes and bickering connections. As the year drew on, we began going to separate clubs on Saturday nights, since it was just unfeasible to get all of us passes to one club. Saturday marked the day that these separations became official—institutionalized, even. It’s been profoundly upsetting to me that by next year, we’ll be eating our meals and spending our weekend nights in separate places, with the unlikely possibility of us grabbing coffee, or organizing sporadic meal exchanges. This “pulling apart” of the sophomore class is not just my perception: a 2007 university report identified that profound socioeconomic and racial segregation characterizes Prospect Street. The solution doesn’t necessarily lie in a (very unlikely) unilateral administrative decision to change the system. Instead, it lies in the hands of the alumni, and in the next few generations of Princeton students. It relies on them coming to the realization that I have presented here. With more than half of my college experience to go, I can only hope that my social horizons will expand, and not become confined by this ancient system based on exclusivity.