News from Alumni House

Is Tradition Important?

I'm writing this brief note to myself from the stage of Woolsey Hall (on my Palm Pilot—thank you, Donna Dubinsky '77) to remind myself of the emotion of the moment. I am currently surrounded by more than 500 Whiffenpoofs who are about to sing "The Whiffenpoof Song" to fittingly end our 100th anniversary celebration. I'm trying to hold back tears, but I will fail.

The tradition is powerful. The magic of our singing casts its spell. These are my friends for life.

Yale's first official historian, George Pierson '26, famously said, "Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends."  Note that he defines Yale as a "tradition" first of all.

But I worry about this tradition—and all traditions at Yale—including the ones that you as alumni celebrate. I guess as executive director of the AYA I'm paid to worry about such things.

Tradition is a fragile thing. Mory's is closed. The songs are different. They don't sing the "Whiff Song" with the same reverence as we did. If you are an older alum (you can define "older") you too have probably complained that they don't do things the way "we" did. Change marches on.

If you come back to campus looking for tradition, you probably won't find it. In The Closing of the American Mind Allan Bloom declared that "as soon as tradition is recognized as tradition, it is dead." The mirror only reflects what has been, not what will be. At each reunion or alumni gathering we stare into this mirror we call "tradition." Do we see a future, or only a fleeting past?

It depends on your point of view. If you are afraid of change, traditions will die. If you embrace change, tradition is life-affirming, a reflection of values rather than the detritus of student life—Mory's cups, Whiff songs, halftime pranks, bladderball, streaking (you can tell what generation I belong to), blazer patches, or whatever.  It's not the songs we sing. It's the fact that we sing.

One of my Yale faculty mentors, the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, put it this way: "Tradition is the living faith of dead people to which we must add our chapter while we have the gift of life.Traditionalism is the dead faith of living people who fear that if anything changes, the whole enterprise will crumble."

One of the most important tasks of an association of alumni is to enable alumni to convey their values—what is really important in life—to the next generation. The manifestations are broad and diverse. The Spizz-winks Alumni Association sponsors concerts for New Haven schools; the Black Alumni Association counsels disadvantaged youth in college admissions procedures; Dwight Hall alumni provide community service opportunities; a senior society conducts leadership forums; Latino alumni sponsor mentoring programs; Bulldogs Across America provides summer jobs and civic "immersion" opportunities in nine cities; the Yale Alumni Service Corps brings students on its service tours; and yes, the Whiffenpoof Alumni plan a reunion with the students.

Whenever and wherever we work with students (or for that matter, young alumni), we of previous generations impart the cultural norms, the mores, of Yale. We are reworking and reshaping traditions with every shared experience.

We alumni can be a powerful family and community network that can influence the next generation by demonstrating that truth and light, however we define them, can be evidenced in everything we share and do.

I believe that you and I, those of us who believe in this tradition we call Yale, those of us who are actively engaged in our class, club, or shared interest group, are writing the "next chapter." It is our creative contribution to the book of Yale, and, if you would permit me to be so bold, our contribution to the world. Is not the heart of Yale's mission—disseminating knowledge, educating and training the next generation of leaders—all about service to humankind?

Is that a book worth writing? Only you can make that decision. Writing that next chapter means continually seeking ways to breathe new life into the "traditions" that many of us first experienced at Yale. It means getting involved as a volunteer and sharing your time and talent with any of the scores of alumni organizations at Yale. It is that sharing, that conveying of values, that is our great tradition.



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