Tuesday, January 29, 2008


A Dartmouth classmate (and fraternity brother) of mine recently sent me the following observation about traditions and their fleeting permanence:

The "old traditions" move with the times. If you go back and read either The Dartmouth or other written sources about D you'll find that every generation of alumni bewailed the passing of the "old traditions," totally forgetting in the process that they themselves ended a few "old traditions" while they were students. The passing of "old traditions" is the way of human progress. It doesn't mean, of course, that we shouldn't bewail their passing . . . wailing feels good. But let's keep in mind that traditions must change if we want to progress. And when you look at and talk to today's undergraduates, there is no question that Dartmouth has progressed.

Although, emotionally, I agree with these thoughts, I cannot bring my intellect into full concordance. Clearly traditions add color and texture to our life’s experiences and there is surely some value to their persistence. Witness that British jurists still wear their powdered wigs to court. Bavarians still sport lederhosen and slap each other around in their touristy dance. The Japanese spend enormous emotional energy with their tea ceremonies. The examples go on and on. Even at Dartmouth a few traditions still survive – Winter Carnival, the Homecoming bonfire, and the Greek system (despite numerous efforts to kill it). The question then becomes – which traditions deserve to persist? I offer that, if the rationales for a tradition have not been maintained (such as why Dartmouth seniors smoked and then broke their clay pipes at the Bema), then this tradition deserves to die. However, I also conclude that the maintenance of the reasons for such traditions is not the responsibility of the students but of the overseers of these institutions. And, if these powers have not continued to educate and explain the backing for any tradition, then they are culpable of lassitude or PC thinking aimed at killing such traditions. And as a consequence they are also guilty of devaluing the transcendental worth of said institutions.

If, as my classmate opines, traditions are will o’ the wisp and come and go with the passing of generations of students, then I suggest that they are not traditions but merely fads. Traditions have been tested with time and deserve to have some lasting power. They need not die to achieve progress. Yes, they may be replaced by traditions of greater worth or meaning, but they should not be sacrificed in an orgy of nihilism. Many traditions will in fact compliment institutional progress such as those that promote social benefits … group cohesion or critical thought or the dispelling of prejudice. They should be encouraged and cherished like an elegant antique.

One last thought about people holding onto the past. It seems strange to me that those who are so ready to throw over old traditions (generally, liberals) are most often the ones who wring their hands when one obscure species of plant or animal may go extinct. Many of these lefties would move heaven and Earth to preserve the snail darter but not lift a finger to hold onto our National Anthem.