Stop Drinking the Residential College Kool-Aid

April 23, 2016
Oliver Cromwell

The expression “drinking the Kool-Aid” comes from the 1978 People’s Temple mass suicide, where Jim Jones, a cult leader, convinced some nine hundred cult members to commit a “revolutionary” suicide by drinking some Kool-Aid-type drink laced with cyanide. Yale student, this university’s administration is making you drink such a concoction. 

You don’t realize it, because you are drinking small sips of it, and the university has been feeding it to students for decades; slowly but surely ramping up the dose. The goal, though the university probably doesn’t think of it this way, is to kill undergraduate culture.

Have you ever wondered why you are being subjected to endless workshops, seminars, and training sessions? Have you ever paused and asked yourself why your group lost access to residential college common rooms, or why your cultural house is becoming more and more run down? Maybe you don’t notice the change, because you haven’t been here for long. So let me tell you what happened.

Back in 1993, when Rick Levin was brought to the head of this organization, Yale was losing ground to its competitors, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, etc. Not enough students were going into the lucrative careers that eventually fund the school’s endowment. The school of management made civil servants, not CEOs. Undergraduate culture was weird (by other people’s standards), and at times rambunctious.  Something needed to be done in order to make the school the sweetheart of college rankings again, and so, the university began its sterilization: the removal of the infectious elements of Yale culture, and their replacement with a sanitary alternative.

It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time, but looking at U.S. News Rankings, it looks like they’re almost done. The first step was fighting back against those parts of Yale culture that students committed themselves to that distracted from their studies. Secret societies were reined in, and brought to answer to the administration. Same with fraternities, debate groups, and singing clubs. Spaces where students could freely associate with each other were slowly removed; think of how commons used to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and how students and professors could always see each other there; think of the atrocity that is family night—what sort of nonsense is family night? Can you seriously imagine someone thinking “Man, I wish students were closer to each other. We should force them to eat with their randomly assigned residential college cohort instead of with their friends!”?—. Residential college common rooms were closed to all but the most trite activities, to the point where they have become little more than large study rooms. It isn’t easy to destroy a culture, but if you methodically remove the spaces required for it to exist, it can be done. 

Once this was done, Yale needed to create its own culture, wholecloth. This is where the cult of the Residential College comes from. Yale needed to create activities for students that would fill the void they just created. Study breaks, emphasis on intramurals, Sasha Pup; they’re just sanitized placeholders for what student life used to be. 

But that wasn’t enough. Because when the university destroyed the natural community of students, it also removed the mechanism by which they teach each other. If freshmen, in their ghetto of old campus, have no space where they can, for example, learn to consume alcohol responsibly from upperclassmen, who will help them the next time a hypocritically Yale sponsored bacchanalian orgy in the Saybrook 12 pack rolls in? This is where the workshop comes in. Alcohol workshop, drugs workshop, consent workshop, race workshop, sexuality workshop, anything that a real culture naturally would have taught its new members, Yale had to find a way to teach. It has done a terrible job of it.

But something else backfired: when Yale destroyed student community, it destroyed students’ ability to support each other. When a sophomore becomes depressed, and has nobody to turn to, because Yale has worked so hard to remove organizations in which members actually commit to each other and spend time with each other, what can he do? Go to Yale Health? That’s a bad joke. These people have no real experience of the worries that a student can have. They’ll much sooner kick him out of the school for a year than explain to him all the ways in which college is difficult, and how to make things better in the way a more experienced friend would. That’s where the Residential College Master as Paterfamilias comes in. Yale has tried to turn the Master into your friend, your sibling, your therapist, or your parent, but it has failed lamentably, because the Master cannot be any of these things. Realize that the Master is a college professor, not somebody who was trained to be a professional parent, and also that it is ridiculous to pretend that a person can show genuine care and concern for hundreds of people that they don’t even know the names of. Watching Master Hungerford go from Calhoun to Morse provided an easy illustration of this. It took her almost no time to go from loving one “family” to loving the other. Students who clamor that it is the Master’s job to make the students feel safe and comfortable at Yale have bought into a piece of perverse advertising that Yale has tried, and failed to, turn into a reality. 

When you protest that this school is not giving you the safe spaces that it promised you, you are reinforcing its project; you are buying into their lies and giving them the tools to destroy you. Yale isn’t failing to provide you with safe spaces, it is methodically removing the only true space where you can thrive: organic community. From here on, there are two paths before you. You can reclaim community, demand that the university return to students that which it took from them, and treat them like the adults that they are. Or you can continue asking that Yale be a better friend to you, give the university yet more control over the community, be promised a workshop or an apologetic email of some sort, and go back to your Residential College sponsored study break, where you will be served some delicious Kool-Aid.

Quenching the Thirst for Knowledge
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