The Task of Tradition | St. Lawrence University President's Office

The Task of Tradition

Winter 2013

The Task of Tradition
It was a pointed question. A well-known Laurentian attending his 50th class reunion asked me, “If you were to charter and build St. Lawrence today, would you have all the departments, teams, activities, facilities and houses that now exist? What would be most essential?”

“Tradition,” I said.

College life is always evolving, constantly refreshing itself, and naturally letting go of once-popular campus occasions for which many remain nostalgic. The social scene of yesteryear included “boonies” (let’s just leave its definition and defense in the vague recollection of Friday night barn parties). For several decades, the Alpha Ball and the Beta Pirate Party were perennial venues for live music. These particular traditions died out, though assuredly, equivalent “Stand By Me” last dances still inspire starlight formals. Social patterns change.

Or do they?

Jerome Robbins once explained that “Fiddler on the Roof” is about the dissolution of tradition and that the point of the show is to give the audience an understanding of what that tradition was, and still is. Similarly, we are left with a pivotal intellectual and scholastic quandary about the potential demise of tradition at beloved places of learning. And yet, while much is new and different for me, “an old grad,” tradition lives vividly and is absolutely vital to St. Lawrence’s future.
The colors, the music, the seal, the bells, the motto, the shield, the landmarks, the ceremonies all matter. Tradition differentiates a single college from all others; the familiar habits and rhythms of a college project a hope that originates in a living past, allowing us to belong, somehow, to more than one era. Without fully knowing why, we naturally seek our own place in the unbroken lines of tradition.

It may come to us as the lived experience Wordsworth discovers when revisiting places of his youth, such as Yarrow River, an eloquent hope of affirmation in the midst of time and chance that an unchanging moment remains steady no matter how long ago it was first felt to be real. His poem reminds me of swimming in the Grasse River at the Sand Banks on a warm September or May afternoon and all that it recalls of a distant yet ever-present day. Tradition matters as a means to strengthen the best, most magical personal memories.

Meanwhile, just what is the root concept behind the St. Lawrence tradition? Our students still learn that good deeds make possible good hours. There is both historical and literary warrant for linking two ideas of “good” into a single answer. From Periclean Athens to late Roman antiquity, an arc of nearly a thousand years, historians of the Mediterranean basin discuss a phenomenon in North African and European cities: private individuals, not governments, built beautiful public works, such as baths, temples and theatres. Scholars have aptly if clumsily named this practice “euergetism” (a tongue-twister derived from elementary Greek: “I do good things”).

St. Lawrence, in its splendid buildings, endowed scholarships, various lectureships and professorial chairs, has known countless people who understood this “euergetistic” tradition of wanting to do good deeds. This same spirit also infuses and explains the St. Lawrence way of looking out for each other. St. Lawrence alumni “show up” for their college friends; they do so for our students, too, in a consistency of faithfulness not replicated anywhere else in life.

This tradition of good deeds creates for students what Robert Frost called “good hours.” He sets the scene: “I had for my winter evening walk--/ No one at all with whom to talk/ But I had cottages in a row/ Up to their shining eyes in snow.” There is a moment of self-confidence in this message that teaches the wisdom of stepping outside your circle to reflect a while on who you want to become. It’s a good hour, indeed, a grand tradition, when St. Lawrence, whether on snowy paths or by living streams, changes the lives “Of youthful forms and youthful faces.”
All for the scarlet and the brown…always.