Differentiating the Big Three

Fishville's Notes: For those who were not familiar with the terms used in this article, I should provide some of the background knowledge. Crimson (deep red) is Harvard’s favorite color and it is the reason why their newspaper was called The Harvard Crimson and the walls of their buildings were universally painted red. Yale’s color is blue, ironically, blue blood means in a society that someone is associated with a noble family or aristocratic descent. Elihu Yale was the philanthropist who donated significantly enough for Yale to bear his name, Yale undergraduates have often been referred to as a Yalie or Elis. In addition, Bulldog (Handsome Dan) is the mascot for Yale University’s athletic teams. William F. Buckley Jr, a Yale graduate, is a famous conservative intellectual who was widely credited to be the force that led to the conservative movement in 1980s in the United States and ultimately the emerging of Reagan administration. Buckley Jr wrote a noted book as a young man, God and Man at Yale, where he heavenly criticized Yale as the institution deviated from its Christian root.
The below article was written by a Princeton alumni in 1984, which was too early to cover Yale’s recent domination on U.S. presidency with three presidents since 1988: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. For 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, Yale probably created a record in terms of numbers of the candidates from both parties. There were one Yalie, George W. Bush, as an incumbent from the Republican Party; and three Yalies, John Kerry, Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman, who were strong contenders competing for the Democratic Party’s nominee. In the end, the contest was between George W. Bush and John Kerry, two members (Bonesman) of Yale’s secret society: Skull and Bones. It was a quite funning theme to watch on that year’s primary debates of the Democratic Party, those three candidates all attempted to minimize their Yale backgrounds in front of the national audiences since America’s general public does not like a leader from the elite class. I recalled that one of them once said that he went to a college in a small town in the northeast, a not-so-bad idea to touch regular folks in the small town America.


Beinecke Rare Book Library (outside), Yale University


A Study in Style: What differentiates Harvard, Yale, and Princeton-and their alumni
By Edward Tenner ‘65, Princeton Alumni Weekly, November 7, 1984
A great European émigré scholar once confided to me, with a touch of regret, that when he arrived in this country he could tell students of Ivy League colleges apart by the cut of their raincoats. Now undergraduates, outwardly at least, are no longer so distinguishable; but the styles of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as institutions and as corps of alumni, remain utterly different.

Beinecke Rare Book Library (inside), Yale University


Houghton Library, Harvard University


One way to define it is to look at buildings, but not just any buildings. One laboratory tower these days resembles any other. We need elective buildings, structures without too many utilitarian demands. Rare book libraries, objects of the greatest pride and the least traffic, are the place to look.
Harvard’s Houghton Library is a scaled-up New England patrician house, imposing and tastefully homely, connected by a slender bridge to Widner. It radiates a slightly dowdy authority. Yale’s Beinecke Library, endowed by a more recent fortune (S & H Green Stamps) is a glorious structure of grey-veined Vermont Montclair Danby marble, stunning inside by day and outside by night, displaying its treasures in a continuous glass-enclosed stack. The rare books department of Princeton’s Firestone Library, by contrast, is a warren of small rooms and special collections tucked discreetly into a corner of a rambling structure honeycombed with other private rooms.
What apt emblems these are! Magisterial Harvard, theatrical Yale, and private Princeton are not bigger or smaller versions of the same thing. They stand instead for different approaches to life. Of course there are endless exceptions. But if style has any meaning, then these three universities do not share a single style.
Harvard, as usual, comes first. The oldest and richest of the three, it paradoxically is the most aristocratic and the least exclusive. It has always been the most public-the most visible but also the most accountable. The president of Harvard once received his salary from the Massachusetts General Court, and the governor of Massachusetts presided over “the Reverend and Honorable the Board of Overseers” until 1865. Only then did Harvard cease to receive state assistance.
During the presidency of Charles W. Eliot, when the university took its present form, Harvard’s horizon shifted from the state and regional to the national level. For all of Eliot’s opposition to the expansion of public universities, Harvard came to resemble the great state institutions in more ways than it cared (or cares) to admit. Unlike Princeton and far more than Yale, it became the Columbia of a city without a CCNY, open and exclusive at once. Opportunity, diversity, impersonality and independence flourished.
While Yale and Princeton were still under close academic supervision, Harvard’s elective system assured the liberty of professors and students alike. While Princeton was still vacillating about whether to establish even a school of law-or as Woodrow Wilson would have it, jurisprudence-Harvard was going beyond even the traditional learned professions to establish graduate schools of business and education.
With justice did Clark Kerr of Berkeley describe Harvard as “a land grant type of institution, without the land.” Even the institutional red brick of the Yard has much in common with the bleak symmetries of all too many state university malls. Given the same large lecture courses, the same heavy reliance on low-paid teaching assistants, and in fairness the same tolerance of dissent, Harvard experienced far more student disaffection in the 1960s than Yale or Princeton.
For all that, Harvard is not merely an upmarket state university. Its national aspirations did not begin with the New Frontier or even the New Deal. As early as 1846, Ralph Waldo Emerson was observing in his journals that Harvard’s ceremonies were “bronzed by the colors of Washington & Boston. The aspect is political, the speakers are political, & Cambridge plays a very pale & permitted part in its own halls.”
Even the Reagan Administration turns to the Kennedy School of Government for staff seminars, and it sometimes seems-to paraphrase Charles de Gaulle-that everybody is, was, or will be in some Harvard program sooner or later. Harvard would really like to be for the United States what Berkeley is intellectually for California and the University if Virginia is socially for Virginia.
Harvard’s greater social diversity and tolerance have created not so much a democracy as a confederation of undergraduate hierarchies, a pluralistic elitism without parallel. There the admission of a student begins with the letter of acceptance. Princeton and Yale have their own elite programs, but nothing to compare with the competition for Harvard’s hybrid majors: History and Literature, Physics and Chemistry, and Social Studies. Nor are there as many courses and seminars restricted to a select few. Everywhere there is competition for a place on a varsity team or on the newspaper or perhaps in the Glee Club. Nowhere have I seen these contests taken so seriously as at Harvard.
Princeton’s and Yale’s Phi Beta Kappa elections are more or less straightforward functions of grade-point averages. Harvard candidates for the little gold key must have their transcript scrutinized (for toughness of courses as well as sheer grades) by the previous year’s elect. Maintaining both departmental and general honors. Harvard even grades undergraduate commencement speakers by the distinction of their diplomas: “an oration (explains the Order of Exercises) if the degree is summa cum laude, a dissertation if magna cum laude, a disquisition if cum laude, and an address if without honors.” Perhaps the final clubs have meant so little at Harvard because so much else is run like a club.
If we add Harvard’s public role, its mix of openness and cliquishness, and its love of rank and distinction, we have some clues to the sources of its magisterial style. But there is another. The American public secretly wants authority, and Harvard’s age, wealth, and self-assurance make it right for the job.
Nor does Harvard shrink from the work of enlightenment. In 1910 former President Eliot received the Harvard Corporation’s support for use of the Harvard name on the Five-Foot Shelf of classics, one of the earliest examples of a university-industry partnership in America. (While there has been a Yale Shakespeare edition, Princeton has never had its name affixed to any standard set of this kind.)
More recently, and in the less optimistic spirit of our own age, four of Harvard’s leading professors in the natural and social sciences have published a book to enlighten lay people on how to think about atomic weapons. What makes it different from other books on the subject is that it is a semi-official effort of the university, inspired and with a preface by its president, and published by its press. The New York Times reviewer, a Harvard graduate, found the book valuable but embarrassingly condescending.
In fairness, Princeton has a counterpart. In the 1960s, some of its faculty were leading members of an academic committee called upon to check the accuracy of the National Intelligence Estimates prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency staff. (Not all the members were Princeton professors, but it met there and was called “the Princeton group.”) Perhaps these papers had a familiar ring, as Princeton’s dean of students in the same era was referring promising seniors to the agency.
In contrast to Harvard, Princeton seems almost embarrassed by any public role. When the College of New Jersey moved from Newark in 1756, it was to find a place (in the trustees’ words) “more sequestred from the various temptations attending a promiscuous converse with the world, that theatre of folly and dissipation.” Yet its aloofness was not mere snobbery. In its early years it charged only about half Harvard’s tuition and advertised widely for students. In fact, it became a far more national university than Harvard or Yale, and had more alumni at the Constitutional Convention than either. Until the late 19th century and the commercial and social eclipse of Boston by New York, Harvard rather than Princeton (of Yale) was known as the college for rich young swells.
What made Princeton different was, paradoxically, the absence of a ruling class. Harvard helped create and was in turn governed by one of the world’s most self-assured and accomplished patriciates; Princeton, located though it is in a town fashionable since Colonial times, has never had comparable ties to a single group. Some old New Jersey families belong to New York and Philadelphia society, but to most residents of the state, the idea of a New Jersey aristocracy is an oxymoron. Even the nearest great city, Philadelphia, is often accused of opposition to ambition and accomplishment and of a besetting privateness.
Given their backgrounds, Harvard and Princeton have developed distinct attitudes toward leadership. For Harvard it seems to mean sensing and directing national opinion, and acting as a model for others. For Princeton, consciously or unconsciously, it’s a subtle grasp of essential details. Harvard’s urban setting, its greater tolerance and openness coupled with a greater acknowledgment of inequality, its freer rein to schools and departments-all these have produced graduates and attracted faculty who enjoy the public exercise of authority.
Princeton’s relative isolation, its greater pressures for conformity (even today) offset by closer faculty contact and greater undergraduate comradeship, its more centralized and cautious administration-these have made Princetonians best at behind-the-scenes work. Yale graduates, blessed with the demonstrative talents we will note below, make promising beginnings in espionage but seem to end up either writing novels about their experience (William F. Buckley Jr.) or entering electoral politics (George Bush).
The two Roosevelts and John Kennedy represented on the Presidential level the genial authority that has become the Harvard trademark. Woodrow Wilson 1879 had it too, for a few years, though he could not sustain it. But it was James Forrestal ’15 and Adlai Stevenson ’22 who illustrated how the reticent Princetonian, lacking the superficial warmth so valued in public life, is handicapped in reaching or in remaining in its highest positions.
While many Harvard and Yale graduates also excel in staff work, it is interesting to note in George Pierson’s remarkable survey of comparative alumni accomplishments, The Education of American Leaders, that diplomacy is one of the few fields in which Princetonians do proportionately better than their Harvard and Yale counterparts. John Foster Dulles ’08 and Allen Dulles ’14, George Kennan ’25, George Shultz ’42-different as these men are, they could hardly be confused with Henry Kissinger. Nor, as some might think, are Princetonians’ behind-the-scenes talents simply an extension of WASP clubdom; there have been few people as private in this sense as the erudite athlete-spy Moe Berg ’23. Even the apparently aberrant Aaron Burr 1772 is best seen as an example of pathologically developed Princetonian discretion.
The private Princetonian may attract national and international attention but never feels completely comfortable in front of the parade. In spite or perhaps because of this, he shines in defense of unlikely causes. Norman Thomas ’05 was a Presbyterian minister and Ralph Nader ’55 a consumer of as little as possible. The defender of the snail darter and of the Maine Indian land claims were also Princetonians, as was the convenor of Bertrand Russell’s “war crimes” tribunal. Often idealism combines with an obsessive streak to channel great energies into lesser causes. Thus Edmund Wilson ‘16’s crusade against the menace of… multivolume scholarly editions. Of course now that this own pet idea, the Library of America, has been funded, it is edited (as befits five-foot shelves) at Harvard.
The Harvard and Princeton faculties, too, show a contrast. Wilson’s memoir of one of Princeton’s greatest teachers and administrators, Christian Gauss, makes the point: “(H)e was not really a public man. He was a spiritual and intellectual force…. His great work in his generation was unorganized and unobtrusive; and Who’s Who will tell you nothing about it; but his influence was vital for those who felt it.”
At least since Eliot’s day, Harvard has treated the outside ties of its faculty with liberality if not encouragement. President James B. Conant, who even as an assistant professor of chemistry aspired to Cabinet office, once said that any Harvard professor worth his salt could double his income by consulting. Harvard has remained the leader in cooperative agreements with industry, especially in biomedical research. Princeton and Yale have been much more circumspect.
Even the relative strengths of the Princeton faculty reflect a certain distance from their countryman. While Harvard has no rival in American history and literature, Princeton characteristically excels in (for example) medieval studies. Harvard has been the home of normative social science on a grand scale, of discoverers of universal stages of human development, of behaviorism and sociobiology. At Princeton the proper study of mankind has until quite recently been the reptilian ear.
Between Harvard authority and Princeton sophistication stands Yale. Well into this century it seemed a gruff and stalwart place, reflecting (in Edmund Wilson’s phrase) “the close energy and the solid logic of a rigorous Puritan stock” in “a competitive society of great ruthlessness and impressive achievement.”
To the Princetonian, all this striving-leading to the awesome Tap Day-is hard to distinguish from Harvard’s meritocratic order. To the Harvard graduate, it has all the conformity and snobbery of Princeton. “When we Cabots bleed, our blood runs red,” declared Thomas Cabot recently in the Harvard Gazette. “I say, let Yale take the blue bloods, and Harvard those red-blooded, hard-working, bright, and ambitious scholars who will protect our freedoms and provide the leadership for a better world tomorrow.”
Yet both are unfair to Yale. For the non-Ivy public mistrusts Harvard arrogance while respecting its authority, and resents Princeton superciliousness while admiring its sophistication; but it genuinely likes Yale. Middlebrow authors, wont to give their more detestable upper-class characters a Princeton or occasionally a Harvard degree, seem to have spared the Elis.
Nor is Yale’s better image accidental. It has been earned. For most of this century, Yale graduates have captured the public imagination like no others. Harvard and Princeton have produced distinguished writers, actors, and more recently actresses; but Yale has given us new genres. Edmund Wilson wrote, was reflected in the musical comedies for Cole Porter. A few years later he might have said the same about the music of Rudy Vallee, who was a bandleader in London even before graduation, or about the journalism of Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, whose magazines fed on Yale financial connections as well as Yale intellect.
Robert Moses flopped as a candidate for office, yet Robert Caro ‘57’s biography points out repeatedly how Moses used a superb sense of showmanship to win support for his vision of New York. Kingman Brewster, John V. Lindsay, William F. Buckley Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Tom Wolfe, S. Dillon Ripley, and Garry Trudeau all have a flair that is too rare among either Harvard or Princeton graduates. Even among present undergraduate celebrities, it is Jennifer Beals rather than Brooke Shields ’87 who has actually set styles.
When Yale graduates do magisterial things, they act with grand gesture rather than with mere authority. As the historian Norman Graebner has written of Dean Acheson: “His considerable elegance went beyond his appearance; it included his dress, his manners, his words and ideas. Whether a discussion involved matters of state or matters of food, his argument had precision and grace.”
Yale’s benefactors, too, have been extraordinarily vivid personalities, whom Harvard and Princeton can’t quite match. Which of their leading donors or trustees can be compared in talents or range of accomplishments with John Hay Whitney? What living philanthropist has been a greater personal force in American scholarship and letters than Paul Mellon? Thanks in part to his influence, Yale is undoubtedly the American university that has made the most impressive and authentic use not only of Oxbridge institutions but of the entire British heritage. Harvard may be sturdily American, Princeton (especially in its scientific and historical tastes) subtly Francophile, but Yale is the home of St. James’s Street polish on this side of the Atlantic.
And the miracle is again that for all Yale’s airs in this egalitarian land, nobody seems to resent it. The greening of America-a Yale professor’s phrase, of course-is over, but the bluing of America seems to go on forever.
If anyone can take the credit for this excellence, it is William Lyon Phelps, Yale’s most beloved teacher from 1892 until his retirement in 1933. A theater historian and critic, Phelps gave some of the first courses anywhere on the modern novel and modern drama. He abandoned the pomposity of the 19th-century prof for a revolutionary conversational style of lecturing, bringing guests like Gene Tunney and the Queen of Rumania onto the podium. Harvard and Princeton have also had dramatic lectures, but the style began at Yale. The recent New Yorker profile of the Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully shows how alive the tradition of exciting teaching still is at Yale. (Princeton’s contribution, characteristically, was the intimate preceptorial, often meeting in the instructor’s living room. Harvard’s periodic and sincere efforts to improve its undergraduate teaching coexist with an unspoken local conviction that Harvard students are there to learn from each other.)
More recently, Yale has also welcomed an unusual number of artistically gifted undergraduates, encouraging them to take performance, painting, and sculpture courses. In marked contrast to Princeton, where the distinguished but rarefied music department has but a handful of undergraduate concentrators, Yale has nearly 70, as well as two orchestras, the band, the glee club, six choirs and choruses, and groups devoted to everything from early music to Gilbert and Sullivan-not to mention the active musical life of the colleges.
Whatever the sources of its creativity, Yale has it, and flaunts it. The Whiffenproofs are still the world’s most famous college singing group, and other excellent undergraduate groups abound. Thanks to Yale songsters, everybody knows about Mory’s. (But how many Harvard and Princeton graduates know that it has fully 18,000 members? That’s enthusiasm!) And how many public institutions have received as much attention as the Yale “secret” societies? As for literary clubs, Harvard’s Signet Society has no treasures to compare with the splendid first editions of Yale’s Elizabethan, and Princeton is too easygoing to have a counterpart of either.
In the 1960s, George Pierson found more Yale alumni as theatre directors-even excluding graduate degree holders-than Harvard and Princeton alumni combined. There is good reason to believe Yale will continue to hold a lead, as each of its colleges seems to have a vigorous and popular drama society of its own.
Yale zest can make even fossils live. The great 19th-century paleontologist O.C. Marsh, founder of Yale’s PeabodyMuseum, was the first American naturalist to display dinosaur remains as articulated skeletons rather than as individual bones. In our own time, Rudolph Zallinger’s splendid Age of Reptides murals in the PeabodyMuseum have created our image of those dinosaurs and of the Mesozoic as no other source.
Yale, like Princeton, unconsciously realizes that actually governing and directing things is something of a bore. What it excels at is adding excitement and sophistication. Had Yale stood by association football (soccer) in its first game with Harvard, America’s role in world athletics might be radically different today. Instead it accepted Harvard’s variant of rugby (the Boston rules). Yet it was Walter Camp of Yale who had those rules modified to make the game more interesting to follow, with “downs” and “yards to gain”-in other words, who brought showmanship to football.
In symbolism and ceremony, too, Yale has a special place among the Ivies. Harvard uses the college silver as the principal emblem of its authority (though there is also a Marshal’s baton and a Sheriff’s staff); Princeton has a handsome mace presented by its townspeople in the 1950s; but Yale rejoices in regalia. It has a Procession Marshal’s mace with the head of a “yale” (“a fabulous and mythical beast of ancient lineage,” explains the program), another for the Corporation Marshal, and one for each of its 12 residential colleges. The University Mace, at 47 inches slightly longer than Princeton’s, is a silver-gilt construction of acorns, oak leaves, elm leaves, and angels, surmounted by a lapis lazuli sphere and a pine cone. The (stolen and still missing) ceremonial collar of Yale presidents would do justice to the Lord Mayor of Renaissance Augsburg. As the commencement program notes: “The usual color for academic gowns in the United States is black. Yale masters and doctors, however, may wear Yale blue.”
Did Yale turn to display, and Princeton to privacy, as ways of dealing with Harvard’s weighty pre-eminence? Without endorsing the “bulldog-underdog” theory once advanced by a Harvard student, I think there is some relationship between the size and venerability of a place and its values. What is even more interesting, though, is the way in which people-whatever their earliest background-seem to seek out the place that suits their own style.
Erich Segal may have been a Harvard A.B. and Ph.D., but it was not accidental that his first and only teaching job was at Yale. On the other hand, McGeorge Bundy, though a Yale graduate, found his element at Harvard. Albert Einstein thought the people of Princeton were “puny demigods on stilts,” but he came and stayed. They let him alone. Alfred North Whitehead, who sought company and loved to play the sage, naturally settled in Cambridge.
For prospective students-or faculty-the best choice is not always the one corresponding to the individual’s temperament. Far better to choose the college that complements it best. Let those ambitious for power and position learn tact at Princeton. Give the retiring scholar a gentle nudge toward the bracing institutions of Yale. Let the musician and the actor overcome the indifference and anonymity of Cambridge. Nobody truly at home in a place gets the full benefit of it-or vice versa.
Edward Tenner, ‘1965(Princeton Class of 1965), was a Harvard Fellow and got his Ph.D. from “that great product of Yale enthusiasm,” the University of Chicago. This article is also appearing in the Harvard and Yale alumni magazines.
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