Harvard banners bedeck the streets above the heads of parading graduates. The baseball team is tasting the first Eli blood that has fallen to a Crimson nine in several years. A Harvard crew is waiting in New London with more than psychology to show to a Yale eight on the Thames tomorrow. Bands play, stands cheer, flags wave. It is an exciting pageant. And it is a curious sociology that lies behind it. Anthropologists of today may well envy their successors of tomorrow the investigation of the Commencement celebrations of primitive American peoples.
One seeks inevitably to rationalize about it What is it that inspires middle-aged men to return at considerable expense of time, money, and dignity, in order to manifest clan loyalty in various and curious manners? And what is this clan loyalty, to an institution of the past, more vital and more enduring than any loyalty Americans have ever professed? Our cities and our states are not for celebrations, nor are our industries or our religions, but the memory of a college fills American streets every June with fanatics, who even dress like the Bantu natives of central Africa.
To compare a prosperous bond-salesman of the American species with an Arunta tribesman is in the sociological sense by no means derogatory. Totems are as fundamental as anything in the curious network of superstitions, contracts, and shibboleths which arise from the social intermingling of individuals. The totem in both cases rests on a fairly common basis, a kindred, actual or supposed, and its manifestations, its parades and its war cries, are equally noble or ridiculous.
There is then no flattering comparison, or no insulting deduction. But the rules of the totem, its taboos and its legends, are fairly well-known to us now, in the examples that have been found among primitive or barbaric races. What we fail to do is to realize that the experiences of these people are in a very real way similar to our own. Loyalty to a tribe of Samoan Indians exacts much the same sacrifice from the individual and returns to him much the same reward, only in different terms and units, as loyalty to an American college.
The great danger that always faced the primitive in his loyalties lay in the very strength of his allegiance, that strength which kept the totem valid long after its vital life force had disappeared. The formal totem became so fixed that life could depart from it, yet its magic suffered not, for man breaks his ideals and his gods but reluctantly, and a dead and meaningless symbol is better than no totem at all. And the very enthusiasm with which the artificial loyalty is buoyed does hurt to the reality and the force of the totem, stifling it and distorting its true sense.
Just such is the danger which menaces the American college, hidden in the warmth, the flame, the color and the laughter of its Class Day and Commencement celebrations. It is an offering by each individual to his own loyalty, to a totem, a kindred in this case with legions and generations of Harvard men. But such a sacrifice must not come unaccompanied by clear understanding and appreciation. The mass form assumed by the celebration tends constantly to render this appreciation more difficult and it is only the strict avoidance of set formulae and taboos which may keep it from becoming less rare. The graduate who brings his family back to parade and cheer is rendering homage to his totem, but the parades and cheers are not the basis thing. And unless he finds in his sacrifice a genuine glimpse of the true value of his loyalty, an idea of the work that is being done, of the changing standards, of the growing spirit, his totem becomes but a dry and lifeless symbol, the very negation of that driving force which makes totems the foundations of the social world.
(Reprinted from the CRIMSON Commencement issue of June 24, 1926)