W&L Campus Tours: A Blend of Character and Half-truths
By R. Johnson Lykes As most students learn shortly after arriving on campus, Washington and Lee University is a school steeped in history and tradition; in general, the current culture of our student body has largely been shaped by individuals who preceded us. Freshman quickly assimilate to the behavioral customs introduced during the orientation process – the Speaking Tradition, the Honor System, even superstitiously avoiding walking through the center columns of the Graham-Lees tunnel. These traditions are rooted in anecdotal legends that seem to grow as each year passes. To a great extent, the stories help strengthen the sense of community shared by W&L students: alums and students enjoy exchanging varying versions of stories with one another, and prospective students are enamored by the folklore as early as their first tour of campus. The tales lend credence toward the historical allure surrounding W&L, providing concrete proof of how our school’s rich traditions are still strongly correlated with student comportment and campus climate.
The Office of Admissions is not shy about broadcasting these stories, as campus tour guides are instructed to ‘jazz up’ their tours with tales that though entertaining, may be light on factual verification. But stretched truths are characteristic of all storytelling. After all, the point of the stories is really just to create a unique sense of culture, and given that hundred-year-old oral histories are nearly impossible to verify, attempting to check validity for all of these tales would be a lost cause. Problems emerge, however, when the school selectively intertwines specific stories with statistics aimed at advancing an agenda: this rich history provides administrators and admissions employees with powerful recruitment tools that can be slightly adjusted to suit an incomplete narrative that appears more attractive to prospective students, thereby misleading some about what a W&L experience entails. For example, we know that Robert E. Lee adapted W&L’s current Honor System from his formative years at West Point, and that the Honor System is a staple of Washington and Lee. Fewer people know that Lee favored students living off campus because he felt it was important for them to engage the local community and for each student to develop a sense of independence by living as an adult. Coincidentally, our administration recently had its third-year housing initiative approved by the Board; it seems Lee’s comments on off-campus living, therefore, are not as widely promoted because they do not support an administrative agenda.
Additionally, statistics for Greek life participation are hard to find on tours, and as tour guide Jack Koch ’16 recalled from one of his tours earlier this year, many, especially alumni, notice stark differences between the portrayals and realities of W&L social life. Koch detailed these discrepancies, saying, “Several alums have come on tours and been really thrown off when tour guides emphasize that Greek life isn’t a big part of the student experience. One even pulled me aside to privately ask if Greek life no longer played a role on campus. Because my experience has been influenced by my participation in Greek life, I told him that it really depends on whether you make fraternity or sorority life a priority. But for myself, and most people I know, it has been.” Instead, Koch claims that tour guides are instructed to emphasize diversity amongst the student body. Ironically however, the University does not provide tour guides with statistics that support this claim of diversity.
These gaps in factual accuracies may not be important with regard to the oral histories that are passed down to students and prospective students, but when these half-truths carry over into other areas, they can genuinely mislead students and impact their college choice.