Divisive Orientation Games
By Lucas Flood ‘21
College is a time of discovery, debate, and discussion. Here at Washington and Lee, we pride ourselves as a bastion of civil discussion. In making my decision to attend W&L, the importance of civil discussion was near the top of my list of reasons W&L was the right place for me. However, recent administrative decisions have taken us away from our foundations. As a first-year student, required community-building exercises and recent experience of interacting with the Admissions Department has given me a unique perspective on our campus’ approach to our history and philosophy towards diversity.
Over the first two months of the Fall semester, all first-years have been required to go to multiple extended orientation events. One of the most recent events stands out. As a group, each first-year was given a sheet of paper to play “Diversity Bingo.” Instead of numbers, each box on the sheet contained labels of various ethnicities, family backgrounds, living situations, and even simple descriptive terms. Each of us in the room were then encouraged to solicit signatures from each other with each signature representing a different religion, geographic region, or, in one case, eye color from oneself. The goal was to find as many individuals fulfilling each label as possible. Naturally, the exercise quickly devolved into each person being defined by one aspect of who they are. For instance, only one person could check the box of “mixed family,” so he became the mixed family box. I was the “blue eyes” box. Instead of helping bring us together, the activity divided us. For as often as diversity efforts attempt to allow individuals to represent themselves how they desire, this activity achieved the opposite.
From the perspective of the diversity bingo organizers, the exercise was intended to celebrate differences and connect individuals together into the W&L community. Although the intentions of the exercise may have been positive, many first-years, including myself, perceived the exercise as placing individuals into restrictive boxes. The philosophical problem with defining people by highly specific outward characteristics is simple. Martin Luther King Jr argued people should be judged by their character instead of the color of their skin. As well-intentioned as the organizers of diversity bingo may have been, the exercise itself went dangerously against the argument articulated by Martin Luther King. However, throughout my first two months here at W&L, my experience with the administration’s approach towards diversity does not stop with the well-intended but ill-advised diversity bingo.
One of the primary goals of the admissions office in recent years has been to increase diversity on campus. Although diversity can be highly beneficial, as bringing various mindsets and philosophies together tends to lead to an intellectually mature campus, diversity, in and of itself, is not inherently valuable. Diversity is valuable for what it leads to, and not simply for the purpose of our admissions department being able to claim higher statistical amounts of diverse students. In an effort to increase enrollment of diverse student populations, we have nothing to say about diversity of opinion and everything to say about the negative aspects of our history.
Instead of attempting to pivot prospective students and their families’ attentions to diversity on campus, our Admissions Office should be addressing the obvious: Robert E. Lee’s name is a foundational part of our university. If Admissions were to straightforwardly address Lee’s contributions to this school, prospective students would know how current students approach our history. Prospective students should not see Lee’s name tied to our university in an ambiguous light. We should not leave high school juniors, seniors, and their parents wondering why a Confederate general’s name is in our name. Our school’s present policy is to pivot the answer to our increasing diversity. Instead, admissions, along with the administration on a whole, should be clear about why Lee remains a part of our institution’s name.
Robert E. Lee’s contributions saved the school from failure in the years following the Civil War; but his contribution to history is important as well. Lee was emphatically opposed to disunity following the end of the war, and was a pivotal proponent of bringing the union back together. As a culturally recognized figure in the antebellum south, Lee could easily have continued the Civil War for much longer, but he did not. Instead, Lee said: “I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony." I believe the words of Robert E. Lee are still applicable today. As W&L students, we should do all in our power to restore peace and harmony on our campus as we learn about and discuss contentious issues. Unfortunately, current efforts from our administration have been detrimental in bringing us together as a community.
How do we, as W&L students living in a polarized culture, reject division and embrace the values that brought me, and continue to bring others, to this campus? We focus on what brings us together as students here: a passion for analytical learning, a drive to succeed, a love of the natural beauty of our campus, and a desire to hear and be heard. Unfortunately, through the experience of my first several months here, I have seen and experienced multiple instances of well-meaning, but poorly executed, attempts on the part of the administration to lessen the distance between students. As a student body, as a university, and as a community, we should come together to engage in civil discourse; recognizing all aspects of our history and focusing on what brings us together as Washington and Lee students.