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Letter to the Editor: Setting the table

There is something sacred about eating, about the basic act of breaking bread with another. It is one of the rituals of human history, the sharing of a table. It sits alongside other sacred rituals of humanity — passing time together, praying together, mourning together — that are all, at their heart, forms of togetherness.

But not all rituals, despite their sacredness, are good or bring people together. At Princeton, another year has come and gone, and with it the cycle of all our peculiar rituals. This week, a significant portion of the junior and senior classes gather in big mansions behind locked doors — they’re locked; I’ve checked — to cast judgment on a significant portion of the sophomore class. They will display the sophomore’s names and photos, hear the case for and against the social merits of each, and then, one by one, vote on whether or not to admit the sophomore in question into their mansion. 


On Friday, many sophomores will be admitted into the mansion of their choice, the doors unlocked, victors in a strange social game that often begins long before arrival at Princeton. They will likely feel some semblance of satisfaction and join the drunken and ecstatic revelers who will let out primal cries, jump up and down, and link arms in quivering masses under 1879 Arch, trying to keep out the encroaching cold.

Many other sophomores will not be admitted into their mansion of choice.

Their Friday will look very different. They will likely feel disappointed and sad and hurt and may wish to retreat from campus for the weekend — or, in some cases, the semester. Their minds will race wondering where it was that they went wrong. Their phones will buzz with apologetic messages from friends within the mansions, who will say it’s not about them, per se — and while this is true, it says much more (as usual) about the judgers than the judged. But this fact will not make them feel much better. They are still left out in the cold.

This is merely a description of what happens at Princeton University in the year of 2018, when we professed to be a place that values inclusion and, for example, mental health. I could fill pages with many more descriptions: of the strange — and too-often violent — sexual politics engendered by the clubs; of the classed, racialized, and gendered discriminations of the clubs; of their homogenizing and dividing impact on the social life of the entire University; and of countless tales of students who have come to me to speak of their anxiety or despair surrounding the clubs. But there is no room here.

I wrote a piece last year called “Ritualized Hurt,” criticizing the cruelties (small and large) we inflict upon each other on this campus under the guise of ritual; this year the ritualized hurt continues, expectedly unchanged, and I wonder what it is that will finally bring it toppling down.

For make no mistake, it will come toppling down, sooner or later: History will not look kindly upon the time when Princeton, professing to be a place of campus cohesion and inclusion, saw its own students divide and exclude each other from eating together. There is a particular, historical meanness to the refusal of this simple human ritual. Call it the ritualistic refusal of the ritual of eating together. This meanness is amplified when the refusal comes from peers and friends.


But we all know this already. So many — even and especially my dear friends in the exclusive mansions — know this meanness is true, bemoan the system, and wish it were otherwise. And yet the ritual continues. Why?

In large part, I think, because ritual makes it seem like things have always been done this way and always will be done this way. But, in fact, for the majority of Princeton’s history, “bicker” has not been something that we do to each other — it was in place by 1914, whereas the University was founded over a century before, in 1746. In other words, it doesn’t have to be this way; it is not even “normal” for it to be this way. I am confident, then, that for the majority of our future as a campus it will not be something that we do to each other. 

So what are we waiting for to change it? It seems to me that now — when inclusivity and diversity are among our chief professed values as an institution; when levels of anxiety and alienation and loneliness on campus seem to ooze at all-time highs; when our campus and country seem more and more divided, the Orange Bubble splintering into more and more bubbles, personal and privatized, at once smaller and taking up more space — now is as good a time as any to make our choice for a shared rather than a fractured future. Now is the time to reclaim ritual.

It’s true, at the end of the day, that the eating clubs are silly. And the seriousness of this whole thing is silly. But the clubs also matter a great deal to this campus and have serious reverberations in the lives of the people who pass through it.

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Bicker clubs: you will not collapse if you go sign-in overnight. A process of self-selection will naturally occur. (And if need be, in case of interest beyond capacity, a much fairer and less hurtful lottery system can be implemented — but I think this will be less necessary than many may imagine.) In other words, Ivy Club doesn’t have to worry about suddenly being inundated by the likes of me.

I know that so much of the allure of places like these is the exclusivity itself. But there is such a thing as re-invention. And my (radical?) proposition is that, in fact, almost everyone — including members of exclusive clubs — would feel much better if the exclusive clubs re-invented themselves such that their worth weren’t dependent upon their exclusion. 

As a group of club members wrote, “We are tired of Bicker itself. We no longer want to wade ankle-deep in its hypocrisy and knee-deep in its bathos. Bicker is tiresome. It is trite. It is unnecessary. It should be abolished.”

The year? 1966. More than five decades ago. I know change is slow at Princeton; the institution has inertia. But let’s get cooking — and let’s finally set the table with enough places for everyone.

Kyle Berlin is a senior from Arroyo Grande, Calif. studying Spanish and Portuguese. He is protesting Princeton’s newest, most exclusive eating club, St. Archibald’s League, this Thursday at 9 p.m. at 5 Prospect Avenue.