The goings-on here at Williams have been pretty tense lately. Everybody knows what we mean – there is tension everywhere: tension about budget cuts, tension between student groups, tension about funding, about Claiming Williams, about diversity, about stereotypes, about activism, even about what kind of person a Williams College student should be. That said, we don’t believe that this tension is inevitable. In fact, much of the disunity that we see left and right is unnecessary.
Admittedly, this division grew out of a legitimate response to correct a flawed majority culture. Williams was once a college dominated by one race and gender and focused on pride, privilege and achievement. The members of this majority disenfranchised and marginalized certain individuals on the basis of their race, class, gender and sexuality. In response, the students, faculty and administrators of the past made many great strides to change Williams for the better.
Today, however, such efforts have been corrupted and have created a destructive philosophy in which privilege is a vice, achievement goes uncelebrated and the College’s role as a stepping stone to greater endeavors is dismissed in its own mission statement. Students contend with false racial and sexual dichotomies and manufactured conflicts that prevent us from unifying over what we share in common.
This culture has resulted in friction on this campus that is evident everywhere. The weekends are defined by a stark contrast between the pre-game and Goodrich type events and the explicitly “non -alcoholic” events. The anonymous responses in the Claiming Williams feedback boxes were split between groups of students jockeying to say who has been more oppressed and those who felt that the whole day was a charade. Some students feel the need to “claim” houses, while others use the word “claim” as a joke.
Simply put, we are living and learning in a college caught between forces trying to “claim” it from intolerance. Sadly, our culture treats the symptoms of intolerance, but not the underlying causes. Often, the efforts to amend abuses often worsen them. Our system is more effective at alienating allies than uniting students: We silence dissenting discussion, we try to put people into boxes based on superficial labels and we blame scapegoats because it is easy.
In response to this balkanization of our school, we’ve created an all-inclusive organization: the Commons Club, which aims to catalyze an evolution in our social and intellectual culture. We are confident that our aims can be accomplished despite our troubled culture because we believe in the brilliance of our peers and the passion of our faculty.
We believe that our campus needs intellectually free spaces where diversity is respected in its purest definition. That is, no perspective shall be demonized and no opinion shall be off-limits. In such spaces, people who disagree will be expected to discuss calmly, rationally and with civility.
With these needs in mind, we envisioned the Commons Club: a club that will strive to elevate the discourse in a social environment that people will find hospitable to meaningful and interesting engagements that are also good fun. We have already hosted a “No Holds Barred Comedy Night” on Feb. 3. The event was tremendously successful, with approximately 150 students in attendance.
We plan to continue to promote this type of social environment. We have plans for jazz nights, dinner-dances, card tournaments, comedy nights, social debates, discussion panels, guest speakers and comedians, riddle and puzzle competitions, trivia nights – all with a “no holds barred” mentality. We anticipate that the club will encourage students to congregate, discuss and socialize freely, without fear of social backlash. Critically, this agenda will be accomplished side-by-side with other student groups, including sports teams. If some people are able to claim Williams, all of us should be.
By bringing the campus together in the values that we share, we hope that we begin to see each other in a common light, as individuals with independent ideas, values and characters – and to remember that we all seek one thing in common: an educational experience. In the spirit of this pursuit, we remember the final words spoken by Ephraim Williams before he left to fight and die at the Battle of Lake George:
“I speak of what concerns the whole country: the fortune of individuals is wrapt in the uncertain future … I shall deem my life not spent in vain, if at its close I shall be accepted as the humble instrument of promoting the great cause of education. In this endeavor, a noble heart embiggens the smallest man.”