As alums flood the campus in the next few weekends, they will bring stories from Williams’ past back into the Purple Valley. Anecdotes of excellent professors and victories over Amherst will surely come up. So too will fond remembrances of activities like intramural sports, Trivia and the contests of Winter Carnival.
In past years, these experiences were true cornerstones of student life. But in recent years, strong traditions like these have faded away.
While we don’t want to simply pine for the days of yore, it is clear that many traditions that once defined the College are no longer what they once were and few new ones have emerged to replace them. We suffer from a collective loss of tradition, and the resulting loss of identity is plaguing our social scene.
We still have Homecoming, and the return of Mountain Day has been an excellent addition to campus life, but these are definite exceptions. That which once brought students together has been forgotten in favor of easily-planned, cookie-cutter events. It is much easier to throw a keg party than to organize and participate in a creative campus-wide event. When traditions are lost, unimaginative ideas will fill the void.
We suspect that two forcesâ€”structural and socialâ€”contribute to this decline in traditions. First, it is likely that institutional boundaries exist that present challenges to students who want to pursue large-scale engagements. Difficulty in locating funding and handling administrative details often derail projects before they get off the ground. Ask any student who has tried to put together a campus-wide event and he or she will likely tell you that he or she faced many obstacles, often too exhausted when the event occurred to actually enjoy it.
Reforms in how events are planned and what roles students should play in the process are necessary, or else students will simply stop planning them. More practical and efficient administrative support would surely help. For example, the College could consolidate and streamline student activity resources into a single person or office in the administration whose job it was to secure rooms, do fundraising, handle scheduling arrangements and help with all the small details that go into planning an event. Posting one large, visible, centrally-located activities calendar, with all speakers, performances, games and parties listed, would be a good start.
Moreover, the current residential fracturing of the campus certainly contributes to the loss of traditions. Currently, students rarely affiliate with their houses but instead primarily associate with other interestsâ€”academics, music groups, MinCo organizations, teams, religious associations, theater, College Council, etc. Past traditions that brought large groups of diverse students together were greatly a result of the house system, through which students had ready-made groups to organize for participation.
The first-year entry system still enables this sort of community building to an extent, but without extended groups of students with a shared identity beyond club or team participation, students will not come together in a way that fosters College-wide traditions. We are not sure whether plans being generated by the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL) are the solution to these problems, but we encourage students to participate in the discussion of these remedies with an eye to the past successes of the house system.
While these structural problems are certainly worrisome, a second, more pervasive force is also at work.
Here at Williams, we are surrounded by hard-working students who exhibit passion in an extensive collection of academic and extracurricular interests and activities. Indeed, it is this passion and pursuit of excellence in a wide spectrum of arenas that the admissions office looks for and that we expect in our neighbors and classmates.
Our sense is that in the past, Williams students were more likely to approach the little things like IM sports and Trivia with close to the same passion that they approached their classes and practices. Whether this enthusiasm for the everyday minutia has faded because we think we are too busy, or because it does not grant the same status as more traditional activities or because it “won’t look good on a resume,” we do not have the drive to excel in the mundane activities.
This loss of joy in tradition is something to be lamented, as it is this sort of enjoyment that has the capacity to heighten our Williams experience, not just in terms of what we get out of it after graduation, but in terms of how we go about our here and now.
For a variety of reasons, the current Williams culture is not conducive to initiating, perpetuating and treasuring these traditions. This mentality, committed to achievement over enthusiasm is, as much as anything to blame for the decline of traditions, informal rivalries and good-natured competition.
While tradition can at times be stifling, it is more often than not a powerful community-building tool. An institution as old and as venerable as Williams should be proud of its enduring traditions and seek out new ones that reflect the creative spirit that invigorates the College. A reexamination of both the institutions and culture that have led to the unfortunate collective loss of tradition is necessary on many levels. Without such self-reflection, Williams runs the risk of losing the distinctive identity.