Beanies, Frats, and Fireball; Tradition and Amherst College


LordJeffreyAmherst_lg(Jacob Greenwald)– This year was an interesting year to be a freshman. When Angie Epifano’s article was published, and the ensuing backlash came out, I didn’t really grasp the gravity of the event. Having been here two months, I just sort-of assumed that this level of outrage was the norm. As administrative gears turned and a report with recommended changes came out, I didn’t really about it too much. I knew people who were more involved, and comfortable in the knowledge that they were intelligent and sensible, I allowed their views to become mine. When the Dumm article came out, I was more amused than aggravated, and I had my own opinions about the “athletes-as-opressed/scapegoated-minority” line that seemed to be the standard of respectable public opinion. And then I thought that it was done. The year was almost over, we would just exist in some in-between space, focusing on finals, internships, and our final Saturday nights here. And then, this mascot debate got started, and I now know what I will be talking about for the next five weeks.

I became interested in this issue when a friend of mine on the women’s rugby team came back to our dorm fuming about the Monday night meeting. While what she said sounded bad, I assumed that nobody would care. We as a college are famous for our apathy, and Lord Jeff made it through the first wave of political-correctness in the 70’s; what was going to stop him now? To see it on the front-page of the Amherst Student was surprising. But after reading the article, I’m worried that something important might have never been stated plainly; that protecting things in the name of tradition can also protect remnants of Amherst’s past that should be changed.

For the “traditionalists,” The Student quoted Adam Medoff ’13, a baseball player. Mr. Medoff’s first quotes encapsulates his view of the issue:

“I think that there hasn’t been enough discussion about what it means to Amherst to change it. I definitely understand the argument, but I don’t think enough has been said about the traditions of this school and how they’re being lost. We’re one of the oldest schools in the country, but I don’t think anyone knows our fight song. There’s not much that makes Amherst unique except for the fact that we’re a great liberal arts college and maybe our open curriculum.”

I think that this comment raises an interesting question. How old does something need to be in order to count as a tradition? Also, when is something the “death of a tradition,” and when is it the college’s natural progress in step with the rest of American life? Some, like the quota system, or the non-admission of women, were oppressive, discriminatory institutional practices, were almost certainly defended  with calls to tradition. After all, Amherst was traditionally a small college that was meant to educate, young, white, Christian men, and allowing Catholics, Jews, African and Latino-Americans, and finally women was a deviation from that paradigm. Another tradition that was engrained within Amherst from the same period was the sexual exploitation of intoxicated Smith and Holyoke students at private student events. Again, this stemmed in part from the traditional Amherst archetype; the “Gentleman Jock.” In both of these cases, the college worked against an old-boy aesthetic in order to bring the institution in line with the rest of America.

Of course there are more benign traditions that the school has had, that if we were to continue them, would make us unique. Two of freshman hazing methods dating from my grandfather’s matriculation here were the inability of freshman students to walk on the grass, as well as the compulsory wearing of beanies. Both are fairly harmless, but they both seem like the results of putting too many bluebloods together on a campus for too long; petty tyranny that is excused in the name of “traditional fun.” I don’t know if the popularity of these practices waned, or if the administration had a hand in ending them. Either way, as a freshman student, I am glad that both are long gone, even if this unique Amherst tradition lays irretrievably lost as a result.

Finally, there are a lot of things that we used to allow, and were even a large part of campus life, that the administration killed in the name of things like safety or taste. Fraternities were a big part of this, and they were an important part of this campus for over a century. They were banned in 1984, the issues cited ranging from the legal (the school owned the fraternity houses, which was a discriminatory housing issue in that non-members couldn’t live in them), to claims that they were “anti-intellectual.” These traditions include the chugging-team league set up between fraternities (with each house having their own), as well as a great game called “fireball,” in which a kerosene-soaked ball of rags was either kicked, thrown, or carried across a field, with each team attempting to score points in an opponent’s net. Games ended when security kicked you off, and the grass on the field would bear burn marks for a long time to come.

Obviously, I’ve left out a lot. But I think that there is something to keep in mind here; All of the things described were “traditions” at Amherst, and currently have no bearing on campus. There are of course traditions that do survive, like the presence and popularity of a cappella groups, or (depending on who you ask) the Sabrina statue, dating from 1837, whose ownership has been a point of rivalry between even and odd-numbered class years (it was last stolen by the class of 2008) since the 1890’s. But these traditions are barely extant as they once were, and even their futures are unknown. While it’s tempting to think of Amherst as this unchanging rock of an institution, it’s not. Amherst changes (in some cases ‘eventually’) with the times, and it’s all the better for it.

Instead of a focus on tradition, I’d like to focus on what I think the actual issue being expressed is. I think that the thrust of Mr. Medoff’s argument is that the Amherst College does not have a united student body. We self-deprecatingly congratulate ourselves for our apathy, we’re not particularly outgoing, and campus life seems to be based around division. In short, we lack “school spirit.” There are of course activities that can and do bring Amherst together as a community, things like traying down Memorial Hill, or attending the Homecoming game Spring Concert. Occasionally, there are even causes that are able to unite us, as Angie Epifano’s article and the campus-wide dialogue that ensued proved. But I will admit that outside of that, we can be fairly disconnected from other members of the student body, and I wish that there were a way to fix that. At the same time, I seriously doubt that keeping a war criminal as the quasi-official mascot of the college is going to do much for campus cohesion. If this is a question of creating a unique campus culture (besides, you know, being a great liberal arts college with an open curriculum), then keeping Lord Jeff doesn’t really do much on that front. If that, and not cultural insensitivity, is at the heart of this debate, then the solution is to create dialogue between communities on campus, rather than not change the mascot. In short, if we need conversations, then let’s have conversations, and don’t let “tradition” get in the way.