I talked a lot about Wabash during my semester abroad. I think a lot of other Wallies have experienced this. It doesn’t take much detail to get people thoroughly intrigued about this place. It is quite a bit different than any other institution of higher education in the world. In a way, I was envious (in a nostalgic way) of those on the outside. After all, I was once in their shoes. The peculiarity of this college yields a certain mystique, which can be so powerful that it reaches out and hooks us. Next thing you know, the enrollment deposit is coming out of mom and dad’s bank account. Being a whole ocean way from this place, and describing just what makes it so special, made me feel closer to it than ever.
I took to describing Wabash as a religion to the people I met in England. I’ll admit that I used the word “cult” more than a couple of times. At first, it was something of a lame joke. But as time has gone on, I’ve come to realize how far that description goes in helping me, and those around me, understand what Wabash is and how to live well in it. My hope is that it does the same for you.
Like all religions, Wabash has rituals. This point seems so obvious that I don’t think I really need to justify it. Chapel Talk is akin to a Sunday morning church service. Ringing In is a rite of initiation. Commencement is a solemn yet celebratory mass. Chapel Sing, in my eyes, amounts to a sort of confirmation ceremony that seals one’s devotion to the College. Monon Bell appears to be a festival filled to the brim with Dionysian excess and madness.
It has creeds and dogmas. One need not look further than the Admissions website to get a handle on what they are. Work hard and play hard and you’ll be rewarded with a successful life. Respect the traditions and the spirit of the College and you’ll be inducted into a magical community that can do anything and go anywhere. Place your faith (and money) in the Wabash way and you’ll be saved from the torment of living an ordinary life (with ordinary pay).
People have a widely varying relationship with Wabash’s beliefs and practices. There are plenty of true believers who are ready and willing to dedicate their time and talent to the advancement of the College’s mission. We even have a clergy of sorts, who go through elaborate and obscure training and wear special hats to distinguish themselves on Campus. If you ever need to hear a short sermon on the virtues of being a Wabash man, track one of them down on the mall.
There are also traditionalists, who still place their faith in the dogmas of Wabash, but posit that somewhere along the line the “true” Wabash was lost. Their solution is to turn back the hands of time to a mythical era when the spirit of Wabash was more real than it is now. They hear stories of pole fights and mandatory chapel and fantasize about living under such conditions.
And of course there are Wabash atheists, who see all the trappings of the Church of the Little Giant as little more than a clever way of swindling us out of tuition dollars. They ridicule those who still believe in the dogmas and adhere faithfully to the rituals. They have a reflexive distrust of the administration, and tend to keep their circles small and guarded. There are more of these doubters than many people on this campus would like to admit.
I find myself caught between all of these groups. While I admire the true believers’ commitment to Wabash, I often can’t help but feel that this place is so important to them because it does a good job of making themselves feel important. Their words often have a certain offputting hollowness to them which signals to me that they’re more interested in the appearance of being committed to this place than actually working to make it a better place. They usually have a strong LinkedIn presence and are quick to use the “Attends Wabash College” feature on their Facebook page to their networking advantage.
I also admire the fervor of the traditionalists. One of the very special things about this College is its unique rituals and ceremonies. I would be saddened to return to campus in a decade or two to find that Chapel Sing no longer happens or that Homecoming is a shell of what I knew it to be. But these people often confuse traditions to be the sole constituent of the beauty of this place. They cling tight to the ceremonies, and the mythical ceremonies to the past, because they find little else attractive about this College.
Finally, I sincerely sympathize with the Wabash atheists. Their skepticism is an important check on the hubris of the other two factions. Anyone who knows me personally is aware that I carefully avoid a zealousness in relation to this College. It can be radically disappointing and frustrating to talk to someone who defaults in conversation to talking about how great of a place Wabash is. So many potentially serious conversations about the state of this campus easily devolve into a tone deaf festival of self-celebration. But the sheer cynicism of many people on this campus is not the answer to these issues.
I believe in Wabash. Through four years here I’ve become a better, more well-rounded individual. But the most valuable parts of my experience here can’t be captured by a few cheesy taglines to be sent out to high school juniors. I don’t love this place because it’s going to help me make more money, or has placed me in a top tier law school, or because I worked hard and played hard. What I’ll miss the most are the late night movies with my pledge brothers, games of euchre during lunch, and after-class conversations with professors who care about me.