Tradition In College Life

Mark B. Ryan, Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University

Sometime in the in 1960s, the fellows of my residential college at Yale instituted a new prize for a graduating senior, one that recognised a category of accomplishment that had not been so honoured in the past. With no better title to pin on it, they called it, simply, the “New Prize.” But they couldn’t let such a title, with its naked reference to innovation, stand unadorned, with no homage to a worthy heritage. The prize description, still recited at graduation dinners, alluded to the founding of New College, Oxford, nearly 1600 years before—and expresses the hope that, 1600 years hence, this honour still will be known as the “New Prize.”

In their instinct to drape a new collegiate enterprise in the habiliments of tradition, the fellows were sustaining a modus operandi that had marked the Yale colleges from their inception. Contriving these new institutions in the late 1920s, the planners repaired to the British colleges, where academic traditions, maturing for centuries, had ripened to perfection. They returned with ideas, and nascent designs, for an array of accoutrements—college heraldry and dishware and colours and commemorative cups and scarves and more. For names, they looked not towards wealthy donors or recent luminaries, but towards outstanding leaders and thinkers from the university’s earliest days. The buildings that they constructed brought collegiate Georgian and gothic styles to high levels of elaboration, complete with gargoyles and finials and woodcarving, all finished by an army of craftsmen imported from Europe. They even intentionally patched leaded glass and artificially eroded steps, to lend the appearance of human use over centuries.  All was in service of creating, full blown, an ambience of tradition.

From our more cost-conscious or post-modernist perspective, many of these measures may appear excessive or artificial, as doubtless they were. But the educational instincts of those planners, I would argue, were sound. All those icons of tradition cultivate a sense of belonging. They help give solidity to the community, making one’s ties to it feel a shade more momentous, more lasting, more substantial and committed. Together with the rituals of communal life, the common celebrations great and small that mark the rhythms of the week or the year, they intensify the bonds that students feel with the institution and with one another. And those bonds serve an educational purpose.

Students, surely, have an instinctive knowledge of nexus between tradition and belonging, and they are constantly in the business of creating, spontaneously, rituals and “traditions” for the community. While the Yale planners may have gone to great expense to provide an aura of perpetuity, the basic human process of adhering to tradition is evident in any college community, and need not be costly. Any observer of college life knows that a moniker, a shibboleth, a chant, a practice, a ceremony, an observance, a mascot—a repeated convention of any sort, no matter how casually or tentatively adopted—can soon, in the short span of student memory, appear hoary and sacrosanct, as if it had been a defining element of community history for time immemorial. That capacity to generate “traditions” speaks to a deep need to intensify the ties of collegiate identity, and to strengthen the bonds among the college’s cohorts.

Insofar as rituals and traditions speak to those needs, and help to inspire a more cohesive and integrated community, they contribute to all the educational benefits that residential colleges offer; they help to foster learning. Participating in those traditions, students (and fellows) find shared experiences, and points of contact, that might further their relationships, potentially awakening interests and expanding horizons. And they may incorporate more of the community’s values and expectations; they are integrated further into collegiate life.

Studies of student performance have identified just such integration as a prominent factor in student retention.  The more socially integrated students feel themselves to be in a healthy collegiate life, the more they absorb its educational ethos: the more fully dedicated are they likely to be to its shared expectations of academic accomplishment and strivings for the common good. In the network of a college’s interrelationships, both among students and between students and administrators, a struggling student, too, is assured of a safety net: troubles and faltering will not pass unnoticed. The connection that both fellows and students have to institutional life increases the likelihood of meaningful mentoring. Above all, the intensified bonds among students stirs latent interests and talents, as they infect one another with their intellectual and creative enthusiasms. The educational value of that social intimacy among students—fostered by traditions—is as true today as it was when John Henry Newman articulated it over a century and a half ago: “the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each,” he wrote, “and they gain for themselves new ideas and view, fresh matter of thought, and distinct principles for judging and acting, day by day.”

Mark B. Ryan, Jonathan Edwards College, Yale University

July 2014


6 thoughts on “Tradition In College Life

  1. Mark,

    Thank you for a fine contribution to start the collegiate conversation. I very much look forward to meeting you in Durham.

    Best wishes,

    Professor Graham Towl
    PVC and Deputy Warden
    Durham University, UK.


  2. A great read…Mark. I would add that ‘traditions’ are not static and for my money should indeed change with time, community values and societal expectations to reach the desired outcomes of a greater ‘sense of belonging’. At International House we are really sensitive to diversity and the wonderful life that it brings to the House…something we embrace encouraging us to review and enhance what we do with our residents. The fundamental values of I-House in 1965 are the same as today, but our path, including the ‘traditions’, is different.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mark,

    Many thanks indeed for this post.

    So much of what you’ve written is in evidence at Hatfield College. Being the second oldest of the Durham colleges, founded in 1846, we have a lot of ‘genuine’ academic and social traditions which have ‘matured for centuries’, yet it’s always brilliant to see each new cohort of freshers quickly establish their own (often weird, usually wonderful!) traditions and rituals that quickly become part of the fabric of College life.

    Tradition at Hatfield is constantly evolving and this seems to be an accessible and inclusive way of ‘doing’ tradition – that new students from all backgrounds are encouraged not only to claim ownership and / or stewardship of these traditions but also to become originators of new traditions in their own rights. The College has become markedly more diverse in its undergraduate and postgraduate intake in the last decade or so (as has the University as a whole) and we’re keen to ensure that the College’s traditions are always used as, and also perceived as, a positive means of encouraging inclusion, integration, expression, and a sense of belonging and emotional investment in College life.

    We hope that when you visit Durham in November we’ll get the opportunity to introduce you to some of the traditions and rituals of which Hatfield students are so fiercely proud!

    Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan
    Assistant Senior Tutor
    Hatfield College


  4. It is just great to have Mark Ryan commence this conversation reflecting so on Jonathan Edwards evocation of New College Oxford from our earliest foundations of the collegiate way.

    Mark’s 2001 book on that very subject is one of the truly great evocations of this overall tradition and especially his notes on how it is defined through six conceptual purposes from ethics through to peer learning.

    This is somewhat covered broadly in my Queensland colleague,Carla Tromans’ reference above to fundamental values.

    Each of us may share many individual examples of the collegiate way and its traditions and I am most interested in the core – those elements, such as Ryan’s purposes that we all share at the fundamental level.

    If you address the topic of traditions in Australian colleges it may mean something completely different, referring as it often does to elements of student behaviour.

    It is most compelling.

    Philip Dutton
    Burgmann College
    Australian National university


  5. Hello Mark,
    thank you for your contribution.
    Tradition is a constituent part of the Oxbridge education model. In building mock medieval colleges and libraries Yale wanted to be part of this tradition and aspired to be on par with these
    “ancient universities”.
    But regardless of whether Yale colleges of the 1930s were built in a gothic, Georgian or Federal American style the essential thing is that the university administrators at that time saw small to middle-sized residential colleges as the ideal form of delivering higher education. A restricted number of students and the tutorial system (pastoral and academic) are still the hallmarks of collegiate universities.
    Within these close-knit communities special ways of doing things come into existence and both old and younger colleges have them. Members of the colleges (students and fellows) will time and again decide whether to perpetuate a tradition or give it up and create a new tradition. And this is, to my mind, the essential thing: good traditions are living traditions and forward-looking traditions and not traditions for traditions sake. Traditions are not stable but in a perpetual process of adjusting. This is a slow-moving process and alumni don’t have to fear that the colleges spirit they experienced will be totally lost. There will be a continuity which secures a sense of belonging and all the other advantages particular to a college that you described in your contribution.


  6. We struggle with this all the time in Cambridge. “New” can mean anything more than 100 years after the foundation, and “modern” from the 18th century onward! My room in Queens’ is in the “new” building – 1750 ish.

    We have found that going back is sometimes to go forward. The way our predecessors coped with privately funded students until the very modern (!) practice of state funded places, and the way we developed charitable trusts to help us fund those who could not pay, is being replicated now that the funding climate has changed in England. We are discovering that the College “badge” is a much more powerful draw than the University in providing funds for future generations.

    Martin Dixon
    Queens’ College


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