Tribe traps students in groupthink

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January 26, 2010

1:20 AM

Does anyone else feel like running a mile every time someone mentions the College of William and Mary community? As a transfer student, my orientation week — read: disorientation week — was one long exercise in emphasizing how much a part of the College family I already was, until endless repetition caused the words to lose their meaning. I have been unable to shake these negative connotations ever since. Apparently my enrollment in this tribe will control my free will here at the College.

The College’s strong sense of cohesion and identity is not necessarily a bad thing. The College is understandably very proud of its history. Any academic institution with such rich connections to the political and intellectual establishments of this country has a compelling case for asserting its uniqueness, even if it likes to do so by piling on the kitsch — 1693 weather vanes, I’m looking at you.

The more intimate university experience offered by the College contrasts favorably with other much larger and more impersonal establishments such as Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia. Individual academic departments, sports teams and groups all add to a sense of belonging that students may not feel again in their lives.

However, being in a community must never be confused with conformity, and there’s plenty of that in the air from the way students dress — you’d think the College was sponsored by The North Face — or the excessive focus on grades, which I have already bemoaned in previous columns.

None of this is helped by the vaguely insidious concept of the “Tribe.” Sure it’s a great thing to shout at football games, but its bastard offspring — the Tribe Choice — sounds a bit like former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, complete with the same levels of popular ridicule. As much as such policy is meant to encourage students to make sensible and informed choices about drugs, alcohol and sex, it’s also a way in which the College tries to do its students’s thinking for them. It’s as if a Tribe Choice is assumed to be a more informed decision than an individual choice.

The College website claims that we’re all “serious about having fun,” yet both the College and the city are equally serious about stopping it with draconian restrictions on alcohol consumption and noise levels — not to mention the newly-revised, but still laughable three-person rule — all contributing to an atmosphere in which students feel they’re being treated less like young adults and more like children. There is a thin line between legitimately protecting students from harm and restricting the natural tendency of young people to make and then learn from their own mistakes. The College often straddles this line, but its inaction in the debate over the three-person rule and the current alcohol policy paints a fairly restrictive picture of life in Williamsburg.

Ultimately, college is about self-discovery as much as it is about forging connections with others. After a high school career, which is often all about fitting in and jumping through academic hoops, college is when you should be learning to think for yourself. A community is only as strong as the individuals within it; after all, those weather vanes always follow the prevailing winds, and students should be wary of doing the same.

E-mail Tim MacFarlan at [email protected]

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