Tradition and Change

May 3rd, 2007

Spring is a good season for demonstrations. Perhaps moral outrage builds after a few months of indoor life, or perhaps after the long Northeastern winter the urge to be active and outside is irresistible. In April, one of the BAM interns announced she was going to Washington for the weekend to join the protest against the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; she said this as if she were going up to Boston to visit a friend. She was aligning herself with the long and noble tradition of civil action among the tulips and the flowering trees.

This spring, you didn’t have to go to Washington to see this tradition in action; there were at least two notable demonstrations here on campus. One of them, against the University administration’s allegedly slow response to a campus assault case, is covered on page 16 of this magazine. The second demonstration was staged by the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), which was asking Brown to recruit Latino students more aggressively, particularly from Providence public schools. This display of ethnic solidarity included about fifty young men and women, roughly half of them from Hope High, the public high school just a few blocks from campus, where about half the student body is Latino. Whether or not the administration is indeed doing enough to attract good Latino students to Brown, it was heartening to know that these students were taking the time and trouble to publicly express a strong point of view.

I write these words increasingly conscious of sounding like Richard Nixon, whose attitude toward protestors was often transparently patronizing. In classic political doublespeak, he managed, for the sake of moderates, to praise "young people" for their good intentions while fueling outrage over the unruliness of it all. With each passing year, I find myself becoming more forgiving of Nixon’s patronizing tone (though his outrage has become more and more ludicrous). One of the more unpleasant aspects of becoming middle-aged, I am unhappy to report, is for a bit of this tone to creep into one’s voice from time to time when talking about one’s juniors.

A second unpleasant tic of the middle-aged is to trivialize the actions of the young by remembering how things were before they were born. Like many people my age, when I read about the Seattle or Washington, D.C., protests against the world’s bankers, Ican’t help recalling the anti-Vietnam frenzy of nearly three decades ago, during the era of the Weathermen and the Progressive Labor Party. Each of us has his or her memories of that time, but in my case they are set in Boston, where the Tactical Police Force wielded riot sticks with alacrity, and where certain images were etched forever in my mind: blood on the faces of friends, a flaming mattress hurled from a Back Bay roof, and locked chains across my dorm’s front doors (to keep us safely inside and, it was hoped, all the violence outside).

Before this essay descends into one of those when-I-was-your-age diatribes, I should say that the point of all this is to describe how a tradition becomes established and passed on from generation to generation, at each step taking on the hues of the present time. I will leave it to someone else to understand why my generation of protestors were vegetarian brick throwers, while today’s tends toward nonviolent body piercers. The point about tradition is that the fundamentals are long-lived, perhaps even eternal, but the details should be forever renewed.

Few institutions are more wedded to tradition than an Ivy League school, and yet at Brown, with its emphasis on independence and originality, the tension between what should stay the same and what should change is particularly acute. It sometimes seems, in fact, that a major responsibility of administrators here is protecting what should stay the same, while a major responsibility of students is to push against what should change. The conflict comes when the groups collide over the same thing.

This push and pull of tradition has been much on our minds at the BAM lately. June officially marks our 100th birthday, the century mark for a magazine that strives to be a two-way lens between the University and its alumni. You might think that after 100 years the picture would get repetitious, but I’m happy to report that the backlog of new story ideas we’ve got in the office these days could easily fill the next five years of BAMs.

Like any conscientious magazine staff, we’re frequently questioning what should change and what should stay the same. These days, change is being thrust upon all magazine editors, who live in fear of the World Wide Web and your television remote control. Along with the number of available channels, the remote enables its holder to surf through channels so quickly that if a program isn’t entertaining within seconds, it’s left in the surfer’s wake. Our expectations have been raised (and our attention spans lowered) to the point where asking a reader to patiently read a 4,000-word magazine article has become an act of editorial folly.

Over the next several months, we will be tweaking the editorial pacing of the BAM and redesigning the magazine to recognize the changing expectations of readers. The trick, of course, is to change what needs changing without diluting what is good and strong. The BAM at 100 must strive to keep itself fresh and interesting so alumni will choose to read it, either in print or on the Web. Our task is to reinforce the values alumni embraced during their years on campus, and to show them what is new while reassuring them that some things, like springtime protests, will thankfully never change.

Those unchanging things make up the magazine’s tradition, passed down from editor to editor like some kind of buddhist dharma. Chief among these is the BAM’s editorial independence and integrity. As many of you know, the editorial staff of this magazine is entirely responsible for its content. Together we decide what to cover, how to cover it, and how to write about it. No one outside the BAM staff sees a word of our editorial content before the advance copies of the printed magazine arrive on campus. It has been this way for 100 years, and with luck it will continue for another 100.

Editors from other alumni magazines sometimes ask about this tradition. How is it that, in this day of closely managed messages, Brown allows its alumni magazine such freedom? My answer is always the same: this University has a genuine respect for the intellectual sophistication of its alumni. Independence, critical thinking, integrity, honesty, candor – these, after all, are Brown values. These are among the qualities the admission office looks for in prospective students, and they are the assumptions underlying Brown’s special approach to learning. Students on campus are allowed a great deal of freedom to choose courses and concentrations; if they were suddenly told which courses to take and not take, the result would no longer be Brown. So how could this same University decide what they should and should not know about their school once they’ve graduated?

The result would be, well, patronizing.

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Related Issue
January / February 2005