A Yale professor stands at the front of a lecture hall, chatting with a group of students who have hung around after class. “You know, it’s hard enough to keep yourself intact psychologically as it is, even in the 20th century,” he tells them with a note of urgency in his voice. “Imagine how it was back there, when everything around you was your enemy, when you were surrounded by disease and ignorance. It was a hell of a situation to be a man in those days. It’s still pretty rough to be a man.”
Thus begins To Be a Man, a film made by Yale student Murray Lerner in 1966 with the purpose of exploring and promoting the University experience as it was then: intense, insular, and decisively male. The smug assertiveness of the title, coupled with the self-righteousness of its opening moments, marks the film as an easy target for a 21st century audience. All those earnest white boys in jackets and ties, smoking their pipes at the seminar table, slicking their hair over to one side as if coeducation were not a short three years away, as if Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers would never descend on New Haven and take a battle ax to the ivory tower as the city had always known it-nothing could better typify the stodgy and repressive Ivy League attitude that we, the Yalies of today, look back on with cheerful derision. For women, to show anything but contempt for pre-1969 Yale would be to negate our very sense of self-worth as integral parts of this institution. To Be a Man might be valuable in certain ways-namely, to elicit some laughs and confirm our assumptions about what went on inside that old boys’ club of yesteryear. But as a serious meditation on academics and identity, it seems to have little enduring value.
And yet, once the film fails to make good on its latent promise of misogyny and gentlemen’s agreement-style racism, once it becomes clear that its idea of manhood has little to do with the exclusion of other groups, To Be a Man is no longer so easy to dismiss. “This is about that journey of the mind we call education,” a voiceover states at the beginning of the movie. “The doubts, debates, and discoveries of college students today.” While some of the fashions and characters featured in the film seem quaint, this quest to understand what college and learning is all about certainly does not. One has to wonder: what, exactly, did it mean to be a man at Yale in 1966? And, more surprisingly, might we, at heart, be good, old-fashioned Yale men ourselves?
The Yale of the mid-1960s was on the cusp of a great change in American education and youth culture. What is less clear now is that the University had already begun a quieter, internal revolution well before the era of campus protests. In the 1950s, Yale was a decisively elitist institution, even more so than Harvard and Princeton. As Jerome Karabel notes in his book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, “the foundation of Yale’s distinctive culture was its close relationship with the private boarding schools.” The Yale admissions board was convinced that boarding schools were molding the kind of boys they wanted: boys who were not simply academically gifted, but who also demonstrated the elusive quality of “personal promise.” “In assessing the latter,” Karabel writes, “the admissions office would look for evidence of a boy’s ‘industry,’ ‘persistence,’ ‘self-discipline,’ ‘sense of responsibility’ and…’ability to participate in group activities.’ “
While Princeton and Harvard were making the transition to a standard of admission based more on academic merit than on abstract personal qualities, Yale stood by its character-based policy. A Yale education was never intended only to produce scholars, or to turn its students into brilliant stars of their fields. It was meant to create well-rounded, capable, and outgoing men. Academically gifted students were routinely rejected in favor of those who seemed to better represent the University’s rigorous standards of “manliness.” In one case that appears in Karabel’s book, Chairman of the Board of Admissions Arthur Howe, Jr. favored one academically questionable candidate over others because “we just thought he was more of a guy.”
By the time the students of To Be a Man were admitted in the early ’60s, times had begun to change. This was mostly due to faculty pressure on the admissions committee, and the drafting of the Doob Report in April 1962. “Yale is no longer an 18th century academy or a 19th century college,” the report stated. “It is a university of the 20th century in one of the great nations.” If Yale wanted to remain a competitive and important institution in the modern world, the report implied, it would have to rethink its policies and make itself more appealing to the best and the brightest. The report asserted academic meritocracy as the essential criterion for admission, and even recommended that the college begin enrolling women. Finally, Yale was getting its priorities straight.
In this context, the idea and even the title of To Be a Man no longer seem like chauvinistic glorifications of a bygone era, but an attempt to grapple with a previous era’s lasting imprint. As more and more students in the film speak about the challenges and rewards of studying at Yale, it becomes clear that even in 1966 the prototypical Yale Man was fast becoming a thing of the past. The film does show brief clips of the track and the crew boat, traditional haunts of Yalies from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. But these images are overwhelmingly outnumbered by long segments of lectures and seminars, the camera following a professor as he strides up and down the podium or resting on the face of a student as he listens to his peer make a comment.
Of course, the Yale Man had not vanished from campus. In one particularly memorable scene, a freshman who is spending the afternoon beating the dust out of his rug on the Old Campus explains that Yale “is not a coed college. It’s a men’s college.” He complains about his roommates who “hibernate in some room, and sit and read a book all day long.” But far more typical is his classmate, who declares, “I want to be put in over my head by the courses I’m taking, and by other people. And even though I might be destroyed in the process, if I come through it, I’ll be much better for it.” This kind of deep desire for knowledge doesn’t sound too remote; in fact, this freshman could fit in just fine at the Yale we know today.
Here lies the film’s real twist and its most strangely satisfying revelation: These students, with their excitement for learning and, at times, disproportionate seriousness of purpose, are really not too different from us. Yes, the mandatory suits and ties have disappeared, and the campus is now far more diverse in every sense of the word. Nevertheless, listening in on the conversations and personal testimonies of the students in To Be a Man feels bewildering in its familiarity, almost as if one had recognized oneself in an old, beautiful photograph of a stranger.
id the students featured in To Be a Man realize that Yale as they knew it was coming to an end? No one talks of social revolution, the escalating conflict in Vietnam, or the specter of female students. They could not have imagined students with wild hair and bell-bottoms walking through Old Campus, the boys draping their arms over the girls’ shoulders or lounging underneath trees, playing guitar and talking. Yet an unconscious nostalgia pervades the film. Lerner seems to have understood instinctively that he was documenting a campus that might look decidedly different in a few years. When the camera leaves the classroom and dorms, it chases after images of Yale landmarks like Connecticut Hall and Harkness Tower, pointing straight up to exaggerate the buildings’ monumental status, as if in fear that they might suddenly disappear. The background music alternates between the traditional harmonies of the Whiffenpoofs and a contemporary jazzy melody. Even the students themselves seem pulled between the Yale of the past and the Yale of the future. “Before I came, I used to listen to all the old records,” one boy says. “We sang, and got together in our tuxedos, and we sang ‘For God, for country, and for Yale,’ and seven alumni in the audience got up and started waving their handkerchiefs, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel good about it.” His friends heckle him for his sentimentality, and we might be inclined to join in too. But there is a comfort and a pride in the customs of an institution that cannot be easily denied. “Brewster talks about your becoming part of an expanding tradition,” the singer’s roommate offers, as if to reconcile the ideas of past and the future, “something that you’re not yourself fully able to change.” Expanding tradition: it’s a wonderful tightrope of a phrase, a kind of slogan for the seemingly impossible. You are the hinge between the Yale of tomorrow and the Yale of yesterday, it assures anxious students. And the two will be exactly the same, only different.