I am no Princetonian, but I have had experiences through eating clubs that many Princeton students might call their own: I’ve had my jacket stolen at Terrace; I had my awkward, drunken first kiss at Colonial; I’ve been turned away by Ivy. I have an unusually large network of friends at Princeton that has kept me coming back since my sophomore year of college. As a result, I have had a considerable amount of exposure to Princeton’s social life — particularly its eating club culture.
In retrospect, the origin of Princeton’s eating clubs is almost ironic. Evolving from their mid-19th-century incarnation to their current form, the eating clubs were first imagined as an innocuous response to Princeton’s once-limited dining options and ban on fraternities. They were places in which one could eat, mingle and debate. But have these clubs ever been completely innocuous? Fervently fetishized Princeton alum Woodrow Wilson himself tried to abolish these elitist eating clubs but was unable to do so against the resistance of conservative alumni and trustees. To an outside observer even today, these fraternity-like institutions and the culture that surrounds them represent a disturbing form of elitist socialization and hierarchization that should have no place in an inclusive academic community.
Students well-off enough to accommodate the price tag of joining an eating club, which can be prohibitive for many students despite otherwise generous financial aid packages, have two options: to attempt to join one for those worthy of prestige or to accept joining one for those undeserving of it. To join a “bicker” club, hopefuls undergo an extensive application and review process. Although some may choose them first round, no-application “sign-in” clubs are often the place of respite for the unfit — those who have, in Princetonian parlance, been “hosed.”
Bicker clubs contrive their seductive allure by shamelessly exploiting the fear shared by all who aspire to emerge as part of the world’s elite — that of rejection. This lust for social acceptance keeps some students applying again and again to exclusive bicker clubs no matter how many times they’re told they’re not good enough to be a part of them. Frequent restricted-admission or members-only events at bicker clubs throw into high relief the social cleavages between those worthy enough of access to the island of the accepted and those damned to bottom-feed in the ocean of the hoi polloi.
No eating club event is more symptomatic of the seriously classist and uncritical attitude pervasive at Princeton than bicker club Tiger Inn’s “State Night,” for which students are encouraged to dress in state school attire and at which students have beer poured all over them upon arrival. What at first glance seems an unapologetic, orgiastic celebration of elitism reveals itself upon closer examination to be a lucid yet shockingly unreflexive commentary on the social insecurities routinely cultivated and exploited by Princeton’s noxious, eating club-driven campus culture. All Princeton students may be elite enough to avoid the abhorrent prospect of having to mingle with the plebeian riff-raff of state school — but by the same logic, not all Princeton students are deserving enough to be part of Princeton’s wealthy, WASP-overrun bicker club elite.
To suggest that the clubs be done away with all together would obviously amount to heresy, and Princeton seems simply incompatible with such radical iconoclasm. So perhaps it would be more productive to suggest that the eating club infrastructure already in place be used for more socially and intellectually productive, justifiable purposes. The existing system of eating clubs, if reimagined, could provide Princeton with an unparalleled opportunity for students to organize themselves primarily along the lines of their intellectual interests and passions instead of along a spectrum of selectivity, provided that students could affiliate with clubs as they please. Eating clubs could provide the Princeton community with inclusive, interest-driven fountains of intellectual life. But unless a group of Princeton students audacious enough to confront the status quo denounces them, the clubs will remain elitist frat houses that differ insignificantly with respect to anything other than selectivity or the backdrop against which students play beer pong and develop a sense of exclusion-based self-worth.
A place filled with some of the ripest minds should be a place where self-aware scrutiny of dated and problematic norms should be embraced — not, as seems to be the case, blind conformity with them. This uncritical attitude and mindless worshipping of everything Princetonian, including Princeton’s eating club culture, seems to be the result of an environment in which rejecting anything Princetonian can be read as equivalent to accepting one’s inability to adjust to Princetonian life — as accepting rejection, as it were, by Princeton. A more critical debate on eating clubs, and bicker clubs in particular, seriously needs to be ignited at Princeton.
Evan Welber is a senior at Columbia studying political science and sociocultural anthropology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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