Backstory: They doff their beanies to tradition

Is there a good side of hazing? A mild – and ancient – form of humiliation makes a popular comeback at Wabash College.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

My college experience was like yours, except my homecoming queen probably had a lot more stubble. And, at my alma mater, if you didn't know the school song – one of the longest in the nation – someone gave you a friendly reminder by shaving a scarlet letter into your head. And, finally, there's this distinction: I wore a freshman beanie.

Recently the club got a little more inclusive at all-male Wabash College. This fall, the beanie reappeared on freshman heads here, breathing life into a tradition dead for almost 40 years.

Whether the evolution of a mild form of hazing drawn from centuries-old rites can survive in today's politically correct climate remains a question, but what better proving ground? Wabash, one of the handful of men's colleges left in the nation, has always been ahead of the curve by keeping behind the times.

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"Students here have this powerful sense of connection to the past of our college," explained Tom Bambree, dean of students and a 1968 Wabash graduate who doesn't think the pressure to wear beanies is hazing. "This is a manifestation of that – a way for students to do something as a whole class and take part in the richness of a school tradition."

Wabash, 45 miles northwest of Indianapolis, was founded in 1832. The liberal arts college sits on a wooded 60 acres, anchored by red-brick Georgian halls. The school wears its old-school charm like a letterman sweater on a crisp, autumn afternoon, making the freshman beanie appropriate attire.

The beanie – called a "pot" – is a miniature green cap with a scarlet visor and button. It dates back to 1920 when it was the visible centerpiece of "freshman indoctrination" that required freshmen to tip their pots to upperclassmen, among others. Freshmen wore the beanies until they were able to steal one that sat atop a greased utility pole in a class scrap – called "pole fight" – between freshmen seeking emancipation and sophomores eager to keep the status quo. The tradition ended in 1966 – the requirement to wear a beanie was dropped in 1968, though one fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, continued the tradition alone. At homecoming, earlier this month, a pair of pledges from that fraternity got a taste of Old Wabash as they spent their Saturday catering to the whims of upperclassmen and visiting parents and alums.

"As much as it kind of sometimes sucks wearing a pot, I'm glad to take part in this tradition," said Rob Harvey, a freshman from Sherborn, Mass. "I've had guys from the Class of '52 and what not come up to me today telling me about their pot and how great it is to see us wear ours. It makes me glad to know they went through the same thing we're going through right now. I think that's kind of cool."

Added Brandon Cornett, a freshman from Valparaiso, Ind.: "Wearing a pot is like being part of a family tree that branches out all over."

That sense of unity created by a shared tradition was being put to a tougher test by the other Wabash freshmen at half time, when the fairest among them competed in an annual queen-crowning contest that evoked an equator crossing, replete with Sons of Neptune cheering on reluctant polliwogs in drag.

The revival of the beanie was the inspiration of senior Ross Dillard, who, like many fellow students, had admired his school's past but felt removed from it. For the past two years Mr. Dillard worked in the Wabash archives reading up on old traditions and a campus that seemed more unified than today's, segregated by fraternities and clubs. The campus, he decided, needed a shared experience.

Through the school bookstore, Dillard made an initial order of 150 pots, then sold the idea to the fraternities. Through his efforts, all freshman fraternity pledges are wearing pots, and some independents, too. The bookstore was cleaned out of the $10 pots in the first two weeks of school this fall and had to restock what is now the bestselling clothing item in the store.

"I want to see this succeed by custom, not whip," says Dillard. "I'd like this to be a social construct where everyone wears a pot when they're freshmen because that's just what you do."

"I have mixed feelings," admitted Mike Bachner, bookstore manager and a 1970 Wabash graduate. "I have a hard time separating the pot as a symbol of humiliation from the fun of it. In some respects it's a great old tradition, but I was there at the demise of the pot."

There is an uneasy tension over hazing – in any form. But if there's anything positive to be said for it, it would probably be the beanie tradition, suggests Hank Nuwer, a professor at Indiana's Franklin College, who wrote "Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking."

"No one ever died from a beanie," he says, drawing a distinction between criminal hazing and the beanie custom that began in grand universities of Europe during the Middle Ages and continued at the dawn of the American collegiate system.

At Wabash, Professor Nuwer says, "There's got to be a lot of pride in being the last of a breed. We like the last of anything. I think at Wabash there's a determination that it not die out – and that's pretty good for creating solidarity."

Beanie-wearing continues at several small colleges around the US during orientation, though Wabash freshmen wear theirs for a semester. But, cautions Nuwer, the dynamic at Wabash might make freshmen prone to hazing and this should be watched carefully.

David Blix, an associate professor of religion at Wabash, used the occasion of a recent chapel talk – a speech given by invitation of the student body – to spotlight the positive aspects of the pot. The 1970 graduate of the college also taught the freshmen how to tip.

A proper tip is like a solemn bow, and requires eye contact and humility in equal measure. The one-on-one tip is simple: The tipper addresses the tipee with the proper salutation (such as "good morning"), direct address, and arm outstretched, hat in hand.

"This is a way that freshmen are ... showing, in my mind, respect and courtesy to the community they've entered," says Mr. Blix. "This is a tradition I've always liked and was glad to see it circulate more widely."

And while Professor Blix is unsure the practice is back for good, he seems confident moderation will win out in the current climate because of the school's "Gentleman's Rule," which asks the Wabash man to conduct himself "as a gentleman and a responsible citizen." The strength of the Jeffersonian rule is its ambiguity: There are the adult confinements of personal responsibility and consequence, but enough wiggle room for the pursuit of boys-will-be-boys fun.

School administrators haven't taken an official position on the matter – though they haven't prevented booming bookstore beanie sales.

"Do I think it's hazing? No, I don't," says Mr. Bambree, the dean of students.

Besides, there are more demeaning things in the life of a freshman at a men's college. You could be elected homecoming queen.

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