I'll be up in New Haven tomorrow for The Game, the annual football game between Yale and Harvard. (For more on why it's referred to as The Game—unlike, for example, Stanford and Cal's "Big Game," which clearly needs the adjective—and on why it's so important to the heritage of modern football, read this). And I'd like to give you a few thoughts on the subject.
When I was a Freshman, Yale had won the previous 3 Games, with strong hopes for winning four in a row. When I was a senior, Yale had lost the previous 3 Games, and had little hope of breaking the streak. Sure enough, Harvard trounced us.
This column in today's Yale Daily News attempts to describe the emotions that come with such crushing (and repeated) defeats. The key point:
It hit me that it wasn't just that we lost a football game. It was more than that. Our social reputation and essential identity were on the line.This has been said elsewhere, in similar fashion.
Over the years we have worked diligently to create the image of Yale as "the cool Ivy." Sure, Harvard may hold a monopoly on the popular consciousness as the premiere institution of higher learning in America. But who cares, we're kick-ass. We stuffed Harvard kids in lockers on our way to AP English. We hate to be associated with those nerds from Cambridge. They were the shunned outsiders in high school, but no, not us. We were the 'cool smart kids'; our social mobility was unparalleled, allowing us to migrate seamlessly from the jocks to the preps to the Plastics. No matter how delusional this might be, our sacred identity is nonetheless under siege.
In episode 4F05 of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns and Smithers attend The Game in New Haven. The following exchange ensues (note: at the time this episode aired, a large proportion of the writers were Harvard graduates):
Burns: Honestly, Smithers, I don't know why Harvard even bothers to show up. They barely even won.And we've proven it. Last year, The Game was in Cambridge, and, as I said, we got destroyed (35-3). But we had our own fun.
Smithers: Their cheating was even more rampant than last year, sir.
Burns: Well, I say let Harvard have its football and academics. Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life. Why, every friend I have, I've made right here.(transcript here)
From the Yale Daily News:
The "Harvard Pep Squad" ran up and down the aisles of Harvard Stadium at The Game Nov. 20. They had megaphones in hand and their faces were painted as they encouraged the crowd to hold up the 1,800 red and white pieces of construction paper they had handed out. It would read "Go Harvard," they said.More details are available here.
But the 20 "Pep Squad" members were actually Yale students. And when the Harvard students, faculty and alumni held up their pieces of paper -- over and over again [every time Harvard scored] -- they spelled out "We Suck" in giant block letters the whole stadium could read.
I've described this in the past as the nature of the beast. Both Harvard and Yale look for a well-rounded student body, but they do so in different ways. Harvard looks for individuals who are the best at something. They want the best students, the best violinists, the best athletes, the best entrepreneurs, etc., and by getting a few of each, they have an overall rounded body. The problem is that they get an unintended result. Think back to your high school days. Think about the kid who was number one in your class. Now, imagine ALL of the kids who were number one in their class being thrown into the same environment. What you end up with is an entire undergraduate student body primarily comprised of socially-inept over-acheivers—not a very fun environment.
Yale, on the other hand, tends to look at people who are similarly outliers on the bell curve. But the admissions department would rather have people who are outliers in several areas—maybe not the best, but in the top few in a variety of departments. As a result, you end up with the people who are more likely 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th in their high school class because they're too busy to devote all energies into one arena. And these people are fun.
So Harvard has tended recently to beat us pretty handily in The Game. At the same time, you can hear the constant complaints of Yale students every time it's played at Harvard, due to the lack of a social scene the night before and the night after—and the sheer amazement of Harvard students at all of the fun to be had when it's played in New Haven. They really are two different worlds—and I say let Harvard have its football and academics; I'd still go to Yale any day of the week.
Oh, and I'm not alone. Today's YDN also reports:
For the first time in recent history, Yale received more early applications than Harvard this fall, with 4,065 students applying under the University's early action program.It looks to me like the message has gotten out. As long as Yale keeps up its reputation for a better, fuller college experience, this trend will continue—and eventually we'll have the football and academic reputations over Harvard, too.