Henry Wriston on Senior StreakI chose to attend Lawrence because it is a liberal college. A liberal college — where students are encouraged to express themselves in creative and constructive ways. Where students are given one last brief moment to experience liberty and fraternity before being subjected to the rigors of the modern workplace. I am therefore discouraged by the recent decision to curtail two of Lawrence’s traditional affirmations of its liberal roots: the senior class cocktails with the professors at the VR and the subsequent display of shared nakedness by many of the graduating class. While the former of these activities can be easily reconstituted in a new guise, the latter will be somewhat more difficult to replace (or at least more difficult to reschedule secretively).
On commencement day President Warch handed each member of our class a well-bound hardback, “The Nature of a Liberal College,” a collection of essays by Henry Wriston. These essays set forth, according to Warch’s introduction in the book, “one of the most enduring and powerful analyses and celebrations of liberal education and of the special and distinctive nature of the liberal arts college.” Since leaving Lawrence I have read Wriston’s ruminations with nostalgia not only for the camaraderie of my own college days but also for the ideals that were once espoused by our progressive school.
On page 110 of the book Wriston decries the influence that social engineers had in his time — 1937 — already managed to wield over many universities. These “professional ‘adjusters,'” as Wriston called them, “have been concerned with the protection of the body politic against people economically, socially and politically incompetent. That is certainly worthwhile, but it is not a high ideal.” This overemphasis on protection has, Wriston argues, “a negative aspect and tends to represent a modification of the situation with a view to a more comfortable or a safer fixation. The liberal ideal abhors all fixations; it is devoted to ‘freedom,’ a word as positive in all its connotations as ‘adjustment’ is negative. . . . Education should engender energies and ideals, thoughts and feelings, so that the creative aspects of life come to fulfillment. We would regard a college negligent if it paid no attention to physical hygiene save an infirmary; the institution with a clinical approach to the emotions is even more recreant in its duty.” Wriston asserts that “emotional enrichment . . . is a quality of the most constructive and stabilizing kind; it is positive; to treat it negatively is to betray youth.”
What were the senior class cocktails and senior streak if not a form of communal emotional enrichment? Surely there must have been some reason why seniors chose year after year to partake in these rituals.
Perhaps, however, senior classes years henceforth will be grateful for the abolition of the scripted activity we came to recognize as senior streak. Rather than being spoon-fed the dregs of a stale tradition, this year’s seniors are free to create new rituals to celebrate their shared experience. It is hoped that such experiments in emotional enrichment might be allowed to regain the spontaneity, exuberance and subversiveness of senior streaks long since past.