Sometimes Near the River: A Response to Our Nanny’s Hysterical Fear

By Marshall Woodward and Christian von Hassell

I have often stopped to think concerning the very small amount of direct moral teaching there was at the university. And yet it is a safe wager that nine out of ten alumni would say that not even the boyhood years at home were fraught with such impressive lessons in morality. The air at W&L always seemed to me to be one part hydrogen, two of oxygen, and three parts ethics.

                         -Walter Edward Harris, The Alumni, Great and Otherwise, 1937.

I can on my honor state that Washington and Lee is a unique institution: A statement that students of Davidson, Swarthmore, Amherst, and other top-notch cookie-cutter institutions most certainly cannot.  Liberal arts colleges are currently in a race to become a caricature of what one could call “the nanny school.”  The administration is crusading to suffocate our culture, conform us, repress our identity, and all for the saddest of reasons: to fit in!

I came here for an education. I came for Virginia, for hard-ass professors, and to be proved wrong, time and time again by my teachers, my friends, and yes, by my constantly growing and maturing self. Our four years of learning at Washington & Lee should not just be in colonnade classrooms or calculated “housing clusters,” but in getting the only chance in our otherwise hyper-driven lives to wake up in the woods, to the sound of Buffalo Creek, to the fog rolling off of Hogback Mountain. Just as walking down the colonnade invigorates the academic spirit, a daily drive from Hooterville cultivates a sense of place that can never be matched by fancy collegiate suburbs, no matter how “diverse and stimulating” the administration envisions they will be.

Our fathers learned to balance beers, books, and landlords. They now comprise one of the most successful alumni groups the world has seen, even though they did not experience the current administration’s grand vision.  Yet in the mayhem that was an unplanned, unbabysat four years, these men and women navigated their studies, parties, and relationships on their own volition, and in turn they became competent, moral, and social human beings, who could not only can think by themselves, but act by themselves as well.  We as students, especially Washington and Lee students, should not let our college lives be defined solely by our academics- nay: our classroom is the conversation with the dubious landlord, getting snowed in and maybe losing power, and setting up a last minute tent so the band doesn’t get rained out- all with Socrates, Descartes and Madison weighing both backpack and mind.

Wastleland, Pumptown, Windfall, Dixie- these dynastic houses are rich in history and are the birthplace of memories that mold and strengthen students here.  Easily enough these party houses are written off as bastions of bacchanalia- and that they may sometimes be. Nonetheless, they are also bastions of friendship, memories, and, yes, W&L.  But the same students that are being prepared for Goldman Sachs, medical school, and Fulbright Scholarships are not trusted to tread lightly near the river.  This excerpt from the Residential Life Task Force’s Report reflects the jaded fears of an administration determined in a quest for domination of every aspect of students’ lives:

Parties have moved off campus to a troubling degree.  They are held in venues that are dark, remote,   sometimes near the river, and where the terrain invites broken limbs from a misstep.  They often   grow to a size that creates problems of control and management.  Students may be left stranded in an   unsafe situation that leaves them vulnerable.  These parties are unsupervised and beyond the scope of significant influence from the University.

The task force looks at us like we are children. Sure, we’re young; sure, we make mistakes; sure, we might fall down on the ‘treacherous’ terrain of the pole houses, but when we do, we do like our parents taught us, and we get back up.  Nannying us is not the solution.  The drunkard who falls down a hill brought the pain upon himself, and such a physical setback pails in comparison to the growth he experiences in learning from his mistakes.  If our true concern were liability, isn’t it quite a long walk from the classroom all the way across those precarious bridges and fields without sunscreen and a helmet?

A Third-Year housing requirement is a conveniently backdoor method of extinguishing the school’s social climate. I know the administration does not believe in the Greek system, but as a student and a newly initiated member of a fraternity, I can dismiss their convictions as absolute and utter bunk. The administration does not believe that students here can benefit from anything the school itself does not design, control, and take credit for. Off-campus housing for Greeks is just that, out of the reach of administrative programming and in touch with the perennial soul of Washington and Lee, the students.

The first slippery steps have been taken to suffocate the livelihood of this school.  This Orwellian revolution looms over W&L.  The Conformity Compound shall soon suppress the Greek system with a system that equates inorganic structure with freedom, construction with progress, and oversight with growth. Yet, this plan lies against the very spirit of the student which it ought to embolden.  A divide between the administration and the students is expected, and even desirable to an extent. And of course the administration means well, and of course the students are not always right. But with all institutions of power, the divide between subject and ruler can widen to unhealthy, destructive margins. When it does, and it always does, it is the duty of the subjects, the students to voice their opinion, to remind our overseers that their mandate is to serve the students, to foster identity and uniqueness, not rob it.


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