An image upheaval

“With its strong network of alumni, famed tutorial system and long tradition of upholding the liberal arts, without question, every Williams student receives the necessary tools to succeed. Such advantages would suggest that Williams would be the preferred destination for valedictorians across the globe. Then why, in many parts of this country and the world, have many students never even heard the name, “Williams”? The answer can be found around us. When one walks around the campus of Williams College, one is struck by this overwhelming feeling: passivity.”

The preceding is from a recent proposal titled “Williams College: A New Trajectory of Competitiveness,” in which René Rodriguez [’14], Yang Lu [’14] and myself gave linguistic form to that which almost every Eph feels but cannot say without suffering the quiet judgment of her peers, who compulsively assert their contentedness with anything and everything Williams. No one dares speak ill of the College or say that it is in some way underserving its students, even if the criticism derives from a spirit of deep loyalty. There is a fear that to do so is to implicitly reveal one’s weakness, one’s fragility within the idealized structure of the Williams community.

We might call it a function of “the myth of effortless perfection” as described by Dean Bolton in her remarks to first-years in September. This so-called “effortless perfection” applies to the institution as a whole – not simply to the individuals who make up its student body. Many feel that Williams should not even appear to actively engage in competition with its larger, more famous rivals, lest we seem to be trying too hard. This sentiment is exemplified by a statement in the 2010 Prospectus: “Percentage of Williams alumni who think that such a fine institution should not have to promote itself with brochures like this: 83.” As a salve for our relative obscurity, I have often heard it said that “those who matter know Williams.” But such an assertion is little more than crypto-elitism used as an excuse for complacency. In some ways, Williams’ peculiar brand of influence can be understood as fertile oases within a vast desert: There are some locales (large cities on the East Coast) where having gone to Williams will be extremely helpful in securing employment. Other places: not so much. These were the ponderings of our trio. And so we wrote our aforementioned proposal, in some ways with purely cathartic motives.

It is common to hear that many Ephs needed to convince their parents to let them come to Williams. In my conversations with fellow students I have heard tales of horrified friends and family asking, “How could you turn down (insert Ivy League university) for some tiny liberal arts college in western Massachusetts?” Such competitive paradigms severely limit the College’s ability to attract students of varied backgrounds. We, the authors of the proposal, feel strongly that exposure to gifted and diverse peers is as essential to true education as the formal curriculum of a college. This was our fundamental proposition, the philosophical ideal that guided our short manifesto’s more pragmatic suggestions. We hope that Williams students will take the interests of the College into their own hands rather than merely relying on the powers-that-be to ensure the continued health of the institution.

Our proposal is a summary of several conversations that a few members of the Williams F entry have had over the past several months. It is meant to trigger further discussion on how to make Williams an even better place to learn and thrive.

For those who would wish to read “A New Trajectory,” it can be found on EphBlog.

The authors of this proposal care about how Williams is viewed by its students and the general public, simply because of their genuine love for the College. We hope that others feel the same way.