History Means Something

In celebration of the 323rd Birthday of the College, Humans of William & Mary presents to you a series of reflections on the Charter. Here we discussed the following quotes from the Charter:

“…that the youth may be piously educated in good letters and manners, and that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God; to make, found and establish a certain place of universal study, or perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences, consisting of one President, six Masters or Professors, and an hundred scholars more or less, according to the ability of the said college, and the statutes of the same.”

What do you think of these quotes? We can start from the first one.

The first one is interesting, because it talks about the Christian faith and propagating that among Western Indians, etc. At this point, we are a public university, and so those things are not a part of campus at all any more. There is no religious affiliation. You know, the cross was taken down from Wren a few years back and there was a whole scandal about that. It’s very striking to read that that’s in the Charter, yet the daily reality of a student at William & Mary does not embody “the glory of Almighty God.” We do have a lot of active religious organizations on campus, but there is certainly an acceptance of any ideology on campus, so I think it’s not a bad thing that William & Mary today does not reflect the same idea of propagating religion, because I think it makes it a more inclusive environment. This Charter was made in 1693, and clearly that was a different time when religious connotations had a greater weight in society, so we should that evolution in a good way.

Does the Charter empower religious groups today?

The fact that the Charter speaks to religion does bear weight, in the sense that religious organizations on campus, regardless of what they may be, have the right to exist and to practice their faiths, rather than saying this is a public university and religion cannot be a part of student life in a public way. In that sense it is empowering. But there are a lot of people on campus who don’t adhere to a particular faith; they may be spiritual without prescribing to an organized religion, and I think that is now also a common thing that is completely well adopted by people of our generation. So there are both sides to the story. The Charter permits religious belief if you are interested in that, but at the same time, there is room to not be religious.

If that is not the core of the College any more, what do you think is the thing that we still inherit from the Charter?

The Charter talks about the existence of “professors and scholars, one hundred more or less.” Obviously, the College has grown considerably since that time. But I think something that William & Mary still holds very much at the core of its being is that commitment to undergraduate education, which the College definitely promotes. That has been carried forward from the Charter.

Being part of this campus community, we see history all around us. How has the history of the College shaped your experience?

The fact that the College is so old and has so much history bears a lot of significance. I remember very specifically my freshman year when we were taking the oath in the Great Hall of Wren. My OA was telling me how the marble steps to the Great Hall are actually slanted because many thousands of people have walked up the steps in taking the oath or entering that room for whatever reason. You become part of that greater historical context; you engage in the history by being in their same room and walking their same steps. It’s made me feel part of a larger community because there is so much history here. History also makes you aware of the systems of power and privilege. The College has a lot of facets to its history – involvement in the Civil War, talk of the Native Americans in the Charter itself – so I think it makes you aware that we are privileged to have a college education, and that systems of power have not always allowed people of all religions and races to have access to that. Our College has come from a different place and has moved to where we are today, becoming a much more universally accessible place now – that has shaped my experience in recognizing the diversity of opinions, beliefs and socioeconomic statuses.

You brought up the oath. Could you talk about how that sense of morality that the College tries to imbue in every student affects your academic career here?

I think that we take the oath not to lie, cheat or steal very seriously at the College. That’s played a part in academic honesty. Not that any students come here with the expectation of cheating their way through college or plagiarizing, but it holds you to an even higher standard. It is so much an honor system. You raise your hand and, with those words having come out of your mouth voluntarily, it weighs heavily upon you. It makes you aware that it is easy to share information in the wrong ways or to give people an unfair advantage. In my own personal academic experience, it gives me a greater sense of fairness – everyone being assessed equally. In high school, there wasn’t anything like that. It emphasizes the idea of making sure everyone here is on a level playing field.

Why do you think we are celebrating Charter Day?

I think it’s very special that our College still celebrates this Charter. Some people might say this document is over three hundred years old and it has no relevance to who we are today. They say it doesn’t reflect our values any more. But I think in celebrating the creation of this Charter, it helps us chart our history and track where we’ve come from, and appreciate where we are today, rather than taking that for granted. We recognize that there were people 323 years ago who made a commitment to an educational institution overseas – considering William & Mary and the new world – that’s really special. We are one of the oldest colleges in the country. That is not something that should be overlooked. There’s something to be proud of in being part of that history, and it would be a disservice to the community here to let that go, or not to keep that at the forefront of who we are.

In general, why do you think humans are so obsessed with history?

There are a lot of clichés about history like, “You have to know where you’ve come from to know where you are going.” There’s truth in these sayings. I think we are so interested in history as a culture, as a society, because it is the decisions we make that create our history. Looking back is a way to understand who we were and how it has brought to where we are today. Without understanding history, all you have is the present, which is a very decontextualized way to exist. History is foundational to any culture, because if you don’t have a history, how do you understand the values of your society, or whatever religious practices that exist, or your commitment to education and arts? Those things create culture.

What comes to you personally when people say the word “history”?

If you are not a student majoring in history or one of the humanities, at the College when you hear history, the first thing you think of is AP History, textbooks, something that might be a dry, boring conversation. But I think history, in reality, is a lively topic that has a lot of dynamic characters and a lot of interesting avenues to explore. When I think of history, I think of people more than dates or events. Even talking to my great-grandparents before they passed away, there is so much history that people have to share with you. Personal histories connect to history at large. For me, it is easier to understand history through the perspective of people than that of books or places.

You mentioned your great-grandparents. Have they told you any interesting stories?

My great-grandparents on both sides lived in Cuba. My dad was actually born in Cuba. They fled the country and came to the States when Castro rose to power. There was history – power dynamics and political ideology – behind that. We read about those in textbooks, but it’s all very real in my family. Especially nowadays, Cuba is kind of a hot topic with the lifting of the embargo. I am from Florida, and there is a large Cuban population, which is a modern-day artifact of what’s happened in Cuba. It is cool to live amidst that culture.

Back to our discussion about the College. We see in the Charter how founders of our College want some things to keep unchanged while others to morph over time. Sitting at this point in time of history, what do you think is to keep for the College and what is to change?

That’s a huge question, because you are altering over three hundred years of history. I think that we are seeing changes in current times. For example, we just had the flexible housing approved, and the all-gender bathrooms are established around campus. Positive changes have been made and are left to be made in the idea of inclusivity and acknowledging diversity. Those are changes that will be made as our generation gets more accustomed to those ideas and starts to accept them as part of daily life. Apart from that – there are so many facets of campus life – there’s been a push in recent years with mental health and suicide prevention. The College still has a long way to go in those aspects, in addition to sexual assault. There have been a lot of conversations and special teams put together. We get emails about that regularly from President Reveley. Not that those problems are unique to our campus, but I think there is always progress to be made in insuring that any academic environment is wholesome, safe and inclusive for anybody who wants to come here. Those are changes that will also be seen in future generations of students.

As for things to keep, there’s something special about the size of our campus, about the architecture and the beauty. I would hate to see the Sunken Gardens go. We’ll come back in fifty years and some iconic things will still be the same. I don’t think what gives the College its character should ever change. Also as we’ve talked about before, that commitment to undergraduates, how easy it is to get into a lab and do research with professors, to meet with them during office hours – that collaborative academic environment we have here is unique. It is not something to be meddled with in a lot of ways. The Admissions Office of William & Mary has a knack for finding very unique characters. I don’t think I’ve ever met two people on campus that are overly similar. It’s hard to say “you remind me of so and so who also goes here.” Everyone here is different in their own way. That is also something that will continue to exist.

People here are very welcoming. The Tribe is a welcoming place to be. I have a particular story that accentuates that fact. When I was a senior in high school and I had gotten my acceptance letter for William & Mary. Over spring break that year I decided to come tour the campus, because Florida is a long way from Virginia so I didn’t want to come tour until I knew I got in. I visited, and at the end of the tour, my tour guide asked if any people were already accepted to the College. I was the only one who raised my hand, so I got a lot of stares for that. But then after the tour ended, she took me aside and gave me a little extra walk around the campus. She talked with me for maybe an extra thirty minutes, gave me her email and phone number, and we kept in touch throughout the summer. I committed to William & Mary, came here, and we were friends all through my undergraduate career. I was the first person to go on her tour that actually came here, so she referred to me as her tour baby. That really stood out to me because I toured a lot of places and never had that kind of welcoming experience. So that’s definitely something I would like to see in future generations of students, that excitement about where you are, being proud of where you come from and wanting to share that with other people, to invite other people into your community.

 

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