Witnessing History at Our College Reunions

Each June, thousands of college alums return to their alma maters to reconnect, look back and catch up. Busy with parties and lectures, lunches and tours, we swap stories and trade memories, taking note of all that's changed and how much has stayed the same.

Inevitably these reunions transport us back in time. We recall our questions and our passions, the campus controversies and the school triumphs. We remember the trials of hard thought and the ambiance of the easy Saturdays.

There's a constant play of perspectives, too: The buildings don't seem to age, but beloved faculty surely do. We glance back at our teenage selves with older eyes, or use the lenses of youth to assess how we live now, and sometimes find insights we hadn't planned to seek.

While coming back is deeply personal, fundamentally, reunions also address the larger historical occurrences of our college years. Whether it was the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War or the Bush/Gore recount, great events were part of the intellectual and emotional fabric of our undergraduate learning. We debated them in classes, dorm rooms and dining halls. We learned how to think critically about them from professors. Whether it was the Kennedy era or the Watergate years, we absorbed the history of our time within the cauldron of campus culture, and, as a result, often changed our ideas about society, politics, America or the world.

For that reason, some historical events loom very large when we revisit the landscape of our youth for reunions. I saw this clearly last week, when my institution, Franklin & Marshall, hosted graduates of twelve classes spanning six decades. At a fascinating all-college ceremony, representatives of each reunion class recounted some highlights of their undergraduate years. Effectively a composite oral history of post-WWII America, these remembrances defined each class and highlighted differences among them. For example:

  • The Class of 1963, celebrating their 50th reunion, reflected upon their Eisenhower-era mindsets of relative calm and conformity. By contrast, inspired by the Civil Rights movement and novels like Joseph Heller's Catch-22, the Class of 1968 saw themselves as rebels and change-makers, builders of a new society.

  • The Class of 1983 recalled learning the shocking news of John Lennon's death from a spray-painted bed sheet draped out of a dorm room window. For the Class of 2008 -- the Facebook generation -- stunning news stories like Hurricane Katrina unfolded by the minute via the Internet.
  • The Class of 1988 spoke of recognizing their mortality through the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger explosion, and the Chernobyl meltdown. The Class of 2003 faced anxious questions of life and death in a shifting global landscape defined by the 9/11 attacks and ensuing War on Terror.
  • Thus, while reunions reconnect us with a distinct place, they also reconnect us with a particular time.

    Still, for all the differences among the generations, the testimonials also showed the commonalities among the classes. Whatever their age, at F&M they all blended political, historical, social, intellectual and personal growth in a formative campus culture that privileges reason and free speech. And today they all share the experience of being able to revisit and re-witness history as members of a living, cross-generational alumni community.

    Some say that residential colleges will go the way of the dinosaur as 18-22 year olds begin honing their skills and competencies through massive online education programs. I doubt that. A college education is not just an individual experience; it's also communal and generational. Wouldn't it be a shame to lose that tradition of generations of students learning and living together, experiencing and interpreting defining historical events, and emerging ready to take on the world's challenges?