Looking back

First-year, sophomore, junior, senior. Four years, occasionally interrupted by time off, pass quickly within the Purple Bubble. It’s been just a month, but our inboxes from the start of school have been long since buried until the weight of daily messages, club announcements and the other day-to-day coordination that e-mail makes so easy. All of this is part of the Williams experience I love: each day chock full of lectures, readings and meals that stimulate every part of the mind, with the days of summer novels left far, far behind.

But as we rush from class to meeting to practice to reading, it’s easy to forget what happened last week. Or yesterday.

Our minds and planners are so full of what is to come that we never have the chance to look at what was. We look briefly over our essays when they’re given back with grades, then toss them into a file or stack until the time comes again to write for that professor. If we’re pre-something, we spend vast amounts of time thinking about how to reach medical, consulting or law school and how to best use our time here to achieve that end. But in this forward-thinking environment, we are rarely called to look back at what was. Each class’s time here is summed by a “historian” elected in March of our senior year, whose only task is to give a brief speech that could never come close to detailing all that we accomplished and produced in the Purple Valley.

And so, when another group of students comes to Williams to fill our shoes, they find themselves without memory or reference to our struggles. Only the Class of 2011 remembers Stand With Us: the library march that bothered so many, the acrimonious WSO debates and the beginning of the now-institutionalized “Claiming Williams,” known only as a potential “Discussion Day” during those first meetings.
Yet many members of the faculty will tell you that the issues driving campus discussions predate all of us. Indeed, the issues surrounding Stand With Us in February 2008 deeply resonated with alums from the 1980s and 1990s, who described the same emotions from their undergraduate years that touched off the huge meetings in Henze Lounge. I saw these alums light up with energy as a classmate described his struggles during a panel one weekend when I was a sophomore; instantly full of ideas, they surrounded him after the discussion to give him the advice they would have given themselves.

To some extent, we all have to have our own experiences. Reading about Stand With Us or any similar struggle (such as the various occupations of the Dean’s Office and Hopkins Hall in past decades) isn’t the same as experiencing the event first-hand, and as situations change, reforms that failed might now be well set for success. A failure five years ago should never dissuade students today from seeking similar change in their own way or in a different direction than previous reformers sought.

Without institutional memory within the student body, we commit three fundamental errors. First, we lose access to students of years past. If Ephs ask me a question today, I can reach back to the ’08s I know for an answer. But because only a few ’11s knew the Class of 2007, they are effectively cut off from the student body, with the rare exception of siblings and those who took time off. Their memories and experience are lost to us. Second, we lose access to the significance or context of our current institutions – that ACE was founded after the chaos of eight different non-cooperating social committees caused confusion or that the neighborhoods were founded in part because of de facto “theme housing.” But more important than lost students or significance, we lose access to the spirit of past change. Storytime exists because an ’09 named Pei-Ru Ko decided we needed a space to share our stories and Monkeys with Typewriters because another ’09 named Jay Cox-Chapman wanted to start it after a Winter Study in India.

There is a long and rich legacy of student reform and leadership on this campus, and more is available to us in the alums who live in and around Williamstown. College Council’s plaques are only a piece of our history – if you’re a current student and are interested in filling in gaps for those that will follow us, please drop me a line. There’s a rich legacy for us to take hold of, if we can spare the time to look for it.

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