By Richard Pryor, III
In his acclaimed book Changes in the Land, William Cronon, an historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, combines the cultural turn of the 1970s with the growing movement in environmental history to discuss how the physical environment shapes us and vice-versa. One of the main points he makes has to do with how the environment was changed when the Europeans came to New England and brought their understanding of and relationship with the environment with them.
While I didn’t quite get what captivated people about this book the first time I read it, I finally got it when I skimmed through my e-book version a few days ago as a form of procrastination. For me, Cronon’s writings are a reflection of our lives — it spurred me to think how I have been affected by my environments and the way I have affected them.
Our Vice-Chancellor (long may he reign) likes to, as my colleague Alexa Fults (C’21) recently noted, remind us that we are not meant to be “in Sewanee” but to become “of Sewanee.” To that point, as we proceed towards the date of issue for our diplomas (I’m not using the g-word or the c-word until we actually get to be back on campus), I’d like to challenge my fellow seniors to think about the way we have become “of Sewanee.”
How has Sewanee become an ingrained part of you? For me, one of the greatest ways that Sewanee enculturates itself in us is through the Honor Code. Last August, as a member of the Honor Council, I led information sessions during New Student Orientation on the Code in which I challenged them to think about what the Code tells us to do. While we can all say by heart that the Code tells us not to lie, cheat, or steal (and not to dismiss the importance of those at all, because those are career killers — see the guy who was Senator for Montana for less than a year or the Democratic nomin- I should get back to my main point), it’s harder to figure out what the Code wants us to do.
The Code tells us that Honor is an “ideal and an obligation [and that] one can know honor without defining it.” My hope is that this is one of the ways you have enculturated Sewanee. We all break the Honor Code in small ways every day, and it always damages something in our lives. For example, little white lies are never as little or as pure as we think they are. The Code, the Council, and all the hoopla around it doesn’t exist to make us think we’re upstanding moral people for staying on the straight and narrow even when we know we aren’t. It’s a check on ourselves as students before we make the mistake that would cost us our jobs, possessions, and/or freedoms.
I offer this not to lecture once more about honor (honestly, Alexa’s much better at it than I am) but as an example. How has Sewanee become part of you? How have you become part of it? Whenever you pass a WaHo sign, will you immediately get a hankering for your favorite order that you’ve had too many times to count? Will you know what a granger is and how to make it? Do you have a fear of stepping on seals or are you no longer scared of ghosts or spirits?
The president of The Westminster Schools, Keith A. Evans, paraphrases Vice-Chancellor McCardell as saying that “a liberal arts education offers more than vocational training to get a good job. It builds inner resources of resilience and personal capacity to lead a purposeful life, come what may.”
Come what may, indeed. This is a crisis unlike any other. This week, I was planning on graduating and then leaving for the choir tour to England, doing some further European travel, and then working at a camp this summer. All up in flames. I imagine that, for many of you, it’s the same.
One of the things that I value most about a Sewanee education is its commitment to forming well-rounded individuals. Sewanee has ingrained the skills of thinking on my feet, the importance of having a back-up plan, and of continually moving forward. My hope is that, as we move through this uncertain time, you find out (if you haven’t yet) how you have been made “of Sewanee” — how you have been prepared not just for this, but how you have been prepared to be an exemplar of our values out in the mystical land known only as “the real world.”
Beloveds, we will be together soon. But until then, as a nod to our heritage, I leave you with the grace carved on the outside of Westminster Abbey that dates back to the reign of Elizabeth the First (with some modifications), held within the realization that we are not the first of God’s children to combat something so out of the ordinary, and that we will always be held, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (H’01) likes to say, “in those almighty hands of love.”
May God grant to the living, grace
To the departed, rest
To the Church, Sewanee, and the World, peace and concord
And to us sinners, eternal life.
Richard Pryor, III is a member of the class of 2020. A history major with a religion minor, his service to the institution includes a term as President of the Gaming Club, a semester as a Teaching Assistant for RELG 201, his involvement in All Saints’ Chapel, his service to WUTS, and a term on the Honor Council. However, he is most proud of his four years in the University Choir, including one year as Vice-President, and his three and a half years on the Editorial Board of The Sewanee Purple.