Considering Tradition on a Changing Campus

On the last day of Orientation, I found myself attending Amherst’s opening convocation. Led by President Biddy Martin, assembly began with the ceremonial entrance of the faculty dressed in a colorful array of felted robes and hoods. The presentation of honorary degrees was then followed by a speech from President Martin. The convocation finally concluded with a unified singing of our school song, “Amherst Hymn.”

As a first year, I was beholden to this display from my uncomfortable perch in a Johnson Chapel pew. Throughout the course of Convocation, I found myself experiencing an unexpectedly visceral reaction to each stage of the event. Coming from an elite New England boarding school, the Loomis Chaffee School, I have become accustomed to academic displays of self-aggrandizement. I have heard far too many speeches extolling the unique virtues of an institution. I have sung a contrived school song retrofitted to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” However, I found myself especially taken aback by the unchecked pretentiousness that seemed to govern the opening convocation at Amherst. The combination of medieval fashion, excessive self-congratulation and even the title “Amherst Hymn,” presented to me an image of institutional pride and tradition pushed to the point of hypocrisy.

Both nationally and globally, the past few decades have seen a shift away from the archaic traditions that formerly defined higher education. Fewer and fewer graduations require student to wear the conventional cap and gown. Many secondary schools have eschewed labels such as valedictorian, and some have even fully eliminated the concept of class rank. These efforts have been undertaken to promote academic cooperation and eliminate the perception of elite education as exclusionary and inaccessible. This movement has coincided with a simultaneous effort among colleges and secondary schools to promote diversity. Having recently gone through the college application process, I can attest that one of the first statistics displayed on any college’s (Amherst included) brochure or admissions page is the diversity of its student body in terms of race, national origin and income. The movement away from educational status symbols and towards diversity has worked in tandem to create an educational system with abundant opportunity and access for far more people than ever before. And Amherst is at the front of this effort.

It is for those reasons that I found Amherst’s opening convocation so antithetical to its proclaimed mission. The faculty’s robes, hoods and caps harken back to a period in history where education was a status symbol — a distinction between the rich and poor, majority and minority. Additionally, the title and content of the “Amherst Hymn” work to portray this college almost as a holy bastion of learning. The song swings jarringly between sacred allusions (“In the temple of these hills, beauty has her alter”) and claims of a superior education (“true learning shall not wither”). These words work in tandem to promote a misplaced reverence towards the erudite, which reinforces the perception of education as incomprensible and important yet only accessible to a few. This rang hypocritical, as Amherst constantly praises its diversity and accessibility, yet steadfastly hangs on to vestiges of the exclusionary history of education.

I believe that the only way for Amherst College to truly fulfill its oft-stated promise of inclusionary education is to eliminate these archaic traditions. Such practices do nothing but artificially reaffirm the college’s own self-proclaimed superiority. Amherst’s prestige shouldn’t be ostentatiously displayed through song and dress, but rather should be proven through the promise of a top-notch education presented with modesty and accessibility to match its proclaimed mission of diversity and inclusion.