February at Princeton is a month of coldness. The winter chill here is accompanied by a different kind of cold, more pernicious and more troubling. For in February at Princeton, it is not only the air that turns icy but the hearts, too.
I refer, of course, to the eating clubs’ admissions procedures — known as “bicker” — that occur each February like a late-winter ritual. As deer may silently gather to ford the icy river in search of an early spring berry, or the chipmunk may awaken to snack on her stored nuts, packs of Princeton students gather each February to welcome (or deny) their classmates to eat with them.
It is a strange, twisted practice, the selecting of who can and cannot eat where, the forced funneling of peers into different mansions to nourish themselves apart from each other, the cold-hearted judgment and resulting division. Like so much else, its strangeness and twistedness has been lost on us because it’s been this way for so long.
This is the way we do things, after all, and we’re all inclusive, thoughtful people, aren’t we — how could it be so bad?
I write this as a reminder that it is, in fact, so bad. I worry that if we keep forgetting, it will never change.
Of course, I recognize the reasons for forgetting: I know the long history of the clubs, the moneyed alumni ready to leap to their defense. I know already the vitriol that any anti-club sentiment inspires; there is no better way to inflame a population than to appear to question their goodness.
But it is essential to question even seemingly immutable systems and possible to do so without questioning the fundamental goodness of the people who engage in them.
I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of bicker club members are inclusive, thoughtful, fundamentally good people. I know this because I cherish as my friends a great number of them. I also refuse to believe, on principle, that so many Princeton undergraduates (two-thirds of juniors and seniors are in the eleven eating clubs, of which six are selective) don’t intend to be inclusive, thoughtful, and good.
But the system persists. Why? Largely because people just want to eat with their friends. And in order to do so, they are forced to partake in a social dance that often begins even before they arrive at Princeton, trying to make the right moves to know the right people to get in. If they make the cut, they swallow their distaste and become judges themselves next year; if they don't make it, they swallow their hurt and seek refuge in a sign-in club or a co-op or likely try again next semester. After all, they just want to eat with their friends.
This is nothing more than ritualized hurt, a process in which peers are expected to inflict a sort of violence upon each other, interacting not as equal humans but as superiors and inferiors. It is a deliberate differentiation that has the potential to damage for life — it normalizes such practices and makes it seem OK to interact with others in this way.
Of course, the irony is that the University itself has already taught us this is acceptable. Admissions doesn't make a mistake, the line goes, as if there were a mistake to be made — as if, were they not so flawless, Admissions might have picked someone wrong, someone inferior, which would have brought the whole system tumbling down.
And so we are inculcated immediately into the myth of meritocracy, lulled into the lie of superiority. As soon as the affirmation of having made it inside these gilded gates wears off — as soon as we are assailed by the alienation that the emptiness of that affirmation helps to create — it is no wonder that we throw up ever more gilded gates, more exclusive hoops to jump through, trying again to feel less alone.
Why does a sense of elitism, drive, and a resultant anxiety still pervade the campus culture? Why are we not a cohesive community across class years? Why does Princeton's two-year residential college system still continue to fall short? Why do we exist so apart from each other?
To all these questions, one must look at least partially towards Prospect Avenue.
There are many who would argue that my concerns are so much sentimental slop. The “real world,” they claim, is just like the bicker clubs — people divide themselves, judge each other; some make the cut and some don’t. There are others who would argue that the clubs are so integral to Princeton itself that it would cease to be Princeton without them.
But this should not be a place that only mimics the real world, nor should it be a place that mimics old iterations of itself. How could the status quo possibly be good enough? We have the potential here to forge new visions of the way the world should be, to imagine new and better versions of ourselves and our systems.
What we need now — at Princeton and in the world — is a moral revolution, to start acting on what we believe before it’s too late and backwards values slip their way into dogmatic permanence. Bicker is only a litmus test.
All major social change begins this way, with a revolution in values, in individual human minds; it begins as a whisper but, echo after echo, becomes a roar.
Let’s roar, Tigers: enough is enough with this system that separates and hurts us. In an age of division, let’s unite.
Kyle Berlin is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Arroyo Grande, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join the movement against bicker, go to www.ClubRevolucion.org.