Loss of Amherst Tradition is the True Liability
Issue   |   Wed, 11/09/2011 - 03:08

Aging conservatives like Newt Gingrich love to pontificate about our national need to return to the good old days circa 1950 (hey, it wouldn’t be me without one snarky political comment, but no more, I promise). But in some ways, they have a point—at times it seems we are living in an age where fear of liability reigns supreme, and causes institutions to err on the extreme side of caution at the expense of traditions and even just plain old fun stuff.

Sophomore year, another senator and I decided to rent sumo suits and stage a wrestling match either at halftime during the homecoming game, or the night before at the bonfire. We thought it would be funny. The college thought it would be a liability, so it didn’t happen. While it’s ironic that two kids putting on inflatable fat suits and pushing each other over is a liability issue but two football teams doing the same thing for an hour, sans suits, isn’t, at least it’s not as pathetic as something from last week’s crime log. Apparently two students were discovered sledding on Memorial Hill (quelle horreur!) and were warned and told to stop. Really? Two adults can’t do what millions of third graders do every winter?

A few weeks ago one of my friends showed us a quickly scribbled note he had found at Val. With the caption, “What doesn’t work at Amherst?” the note mentioned, among other things, a lack of traditions and few experiences shared by all students. Those have been two of my biggest gripes during my four years here as well, and they haven’t gone unnoticed by others, including The Student editors, and no I’m not really talking about Senior Bar Night and other changes in alcohol policy where “liability” seemingly has been trotted out as a catch-all justification. It goes deeper.

College is a far richer academic, social and emotional experience than high school was, or could ever hope to be — Amherst certainly has been for me. So it bothers me that I often feel more connection with alumni from high school than with Amherst alumni. Why? Because I have memories of high school experiences I shared with my class and the student body, and I know those alumni have those exact same memories. Things like gathering in the mall to watch Latin students race homemade “chariots”and cheering at the crashes; singing the alma mater before and after every football game; leaving our very last class ever as seniors to gather outside and smoke cigars together.

I don’t mention these examples because I have some sadistic desire to go back to high school, but because I think it’s an absolute shame that for the most part, these kinds of shared traditions that connect classmates and tie the new days with the old have become absent from the Amherst experience.

They weren’t always absent though. The now well-known 1913 New York Times article talks about traditions like freshmen having to wear “pea green Eton caps” until late February (though probably a non-starter at this point). There also used to be class games between the first-year and sophomores — including a relay race, the winner of which got a barrel of cider — after which the freshmen, if they won, went around campus in the middle of the night putting up their class number on trees, fences and buildings while the sophomores attempted to tear them down before morning.

Yes, we are all here, and we are all smart, and there aren’t very many of us, and that naturally creates some sense of affinity and belonging, but I don’t think it’s enough. A college should be more than just stellar academics and the incredible individual accomplishments of Amherst wunderkinds. It should be a community — kind of like the way Val felt the other Sunday after the snowstorm. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of ways to find community at Amherst, be it through a sports team, one of the frats, some other social organization, or perhaps just a fantastic group of friends. But all of these — necessary, integral, and desirable as they are — are exclusive by nature, and sometimes divisive. They won’t ever help the entire student body feel connected to each other, and to past and future alumni, the way they do for the rugby team, or DQ.

There’s tremendous value to being able to look someone from the class of 1982 in the eye knowing that you both participated in some activity or experience, particular and unique, and knowing that — hopefully — the class of 2022 will someday be able to look you in the eye feeling the same way. The real liability to worry about is that Amherst should forget this.