Mon 30 Jun 2008
Merit, of course, is important, but it is not what makes Williams distinctive. The entire university system incubates merit, each institution in its own way. Indeed, I will be so un-nationalistic as to say that even Wesleyan and Amherst serve much the same function. But what truly makes this place distinctive is its physical location, up in this mountain valley, far from the madding crowd. Henry Thoreau remarked on this after visiting Williams, saying “It would be no small advantage if every college were thus located at the base of a mountain.” It is a comment which the College has reproduced in so many advertisements and brochures that seeing it will leave the practiced Williams eye a little queasy. But this does nothing to diminish its truth. These mountains, these hills that surround us and fence in our little valley with their beautiful, almost amorous shapes, truly set this place apart, from other campuses and from the outside world. This has no doubt been a source of dissatisfaction to those of you who remember, a little wistfully, the bright lights of New York and Boston. But the cities shall pass; the hills will not. They have stood in mute witness to ten thousand years of human history in this valley, and they have watched over us as well — in the throes of first adversity, in the ecstasy of final triumph, watched us glow and sorrow in first love, old love, new love and true love; they have accompanied us, unmoving, through every season under the sun. In the fall they explode into a vibrancy made poignant by its ephemerality; in the winter, sere and white, they are Ethan Frome’s country. In April and May a slow vernal tide works its way up their living sides, while in the summer, they simply exult. And now, they will see us off, out into the world.
What makes Williams distinctive, a different place than all the many excellent liberal arts colleges? Is it really the physical location?
What makes Williams Williams?
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