An Editorial Obituary: The Speaking Tradition
Nathan Richendollar ('19)-
On my first tour of Washington and Lee in the spring of 2015, three things stuck out to me: Traveller’s grave, Lee Chapel, and the speaking tradition. Since the 1860s, it has been a mainstay of campus life, a symbol of both the genteel Virginia manners and the republican spirit of political egalitarianism practiced by the students here. How better to convey friendly spirit and get rid of antisocial tendencies than to have everyone acknowledge one another and foster a tight-knit community? It’s the model that Abraham Lincoln thought America had imbued on a national scale to work toward a common moral end that could make, “the ignorant, wiser, and all better and happier together.” As recently as my freshman year, it seemed that at least three-quarters of W & L’s student population partook in this integral pastime. But after one hundred and fifty years, it is apparent that the speaking tradition, for all intents and purposes, is pushing up vegetation of the Bellis perennis variety. I must admit that I feel somewhat like the apparatchik who announced Stalin’s death must have felt: as if my statement of a plainly obvious but unpleasant truth might place me in disfavor with many. Fortunately, unlike Stalin, the speaking tradition can be resuscitated, so this prognosis is by no means final, but the patient is in critical condition and faces many challenges.
The speaking tradition has been steadily declining since my arrival on campus, but its absence is now deafening. On a walk back from D-hall to third-year housing this past Friday, amid unseasonably warm temperatures that should have spurred amicability. Instead, half the students walking past me were immersed in the virtual world, and of those that weren’t, the vast majority walked by in silence, some hanging their heads once we got within thirty yards sheepishly to make overtures based on initial eye contact impossible. I exchanged words with two folks, one of whom I knew, on the entire walk. Less than 10% of people made an affirmative effort to greet me. Perhaps the same could be said of me. After all, it takes two not to tango. I often do initiate communication, but I’ve learned in the past two years that something has changed. Maybe it’s Donald Trump in the White House, or the division in the nation that makes us less and less trustful of each other, or the strikingly ascendant view among feminists that a huge proportion of men are pigs (leading to reticence to respond to males’ innocent greetings), students assuming that society no longer cares about traditions from events over the last decade, or maybe it’s just the natural progression of things, like the increase in government’s power or the march toward bigger and deadlier weapons. Since my freshman year, the proportion of students who would either act like I hadn’t said anything, or merely respond with a “what’s up” in a tone conveying irritation at having to make noise, has increased dramatically, most notably in the past semester. So, I stopped trying as much. I still do sometimes, but usually with merely a tentative nod, not a hearty “hello.” This wouldn’t be an issue whatever if W & L was a large state university that didn’t rely on a close-knit community and near-universal camaraderie as one of its main selling points. Acknowledging others is the first step in civil engagement, crucial to the cohesiveness and continued vitality of any small institution like W & L. And until students start greeting one another regularly again and stop avoiding others, we’ll be lying to our prospective students, alumni, and parents when we claim the speaking tradition.
Whatever the reason for the speaking tradition’s decline, we need to get past it and start talking to one another again, most especially to people with whom we don’t normally converse. The “civil discourse” that we enlightened, liberally-educated folks love to promote as the solution to nearly everything and anything doesn’t start with planned events or mass gatherings, it starts in the everyday interactions of all of us building associations of friends with different beliefs and characters. After a semester of shockingly low rates of greeting, I’ll be the first one to take my own advice this semester. The speaking tradition is dead, but it can pull a Lazarus if we all resolve to be more civically-minded. After all, as we all learned from grade school lessons, kindness and respect, like the flu, are contagious.