Sat 9 Aug 2014
To the JA’s for the class of 2018:
At the 1989 Williams graduation ceremonies, then-President Francis Oakley had a problem. Light rain showers, which had been threatening all morning, started mid-way through the event. Thinking that he should speed things along, and realizing that virtually no one knew the words to “The Mountains,” President Oakley proposed that the traditional singing be skipped.
A cry arose from all Ephs present, myself included. Although few knew the words, all wanted to sing the damn song. Sensing rebellion, President Oakley relented and led the assembled graduates and guests through a somewhat soaked rendition of the song that has marked Williams events for more than 100 years.
Similar scenes play themselves out at Williams gatherings around the country. At some of the Williams weddings that you will attend in the future, an attempt, albeit a weak one, will be made to sing “The Mountains.” At reunions, “The Mountains” will be sung, generally with the help of handy cards supplied by the Alumni Office. It is obvious that most graduates wish that they knew the words. It is equally obvious than almost all do not.
We have a collective action problem. Everyone (undergraduates and alumni alike) wishes that everyone knew the words — it would be wonderful to sing “The Mountains” at events ranging from basketball games in the gym to hikes up Pine Cobble to gatherings around the world. But there is no point in me learning the words since, even if I knew them, there would be no one else who did. Since no single individual has an incentive to learn the words, no one bothers to learn them. We are stuck at a sub-optimal equilibrium.
Fortunately, you have the power to fix this. You could learn “The Mountains” together, as a group, during your JA orientation. You could then teach all the First Years during First Days. It will no doubt make for a nice entry bonding experience. All sorts of goofy ideas come to mind. How about a singing contest at the opening dinner, judged by President Falk, between the six different first year dorms with first prize being a pizza dinner later in the fall at the President’s House?
It will not be enough to learn the song that evening. Periodically over the last dozen years, attempts have been made to teach the words at dinner or at the class meeting in Chapin. Such efforts, worthy as they are, have always failed. My advice:
1) Learn all the words by heart at JA training. This is harder than it sounds. The song is longer and more complex than you think. Maybe sing it between every session? Maybe a contest between JAs from the 6 first year houses? If you don’t sing the song at least 20 times, you won’t know it by heart.
2) Encourage the first years to learn the song before they come to Williams. There are few people more excited about all things Williams in August than incoming first years. Send them the lyrics. Send them videos of campus groups singing “The Mountains.” Tell them that, as an entry, you will be singing the song many times on that first day.
3) Carry through on that promise! Have your entry sing the song multiple times that day. Maybe the two JAs sing the song to the first student who arrives. Then, the three of you sing if for student number 2. And so on. When the last student arrives, the entire entry serenades him (and his family).
4) There should be some target contest toward which this effort is nominally directed. I like the idea of a sing off between the 6 first year dorms with President Falk as judge. But the actual details don’t matter much. What matters is singing the song over-and-over again that first day.
Will this process be dorky and weird and awkward? Of course it will! But that is OK. Dorkiness in the pursuit of community is no vice. And you and your first years will all be dorky together.
For scores of years, Ephs of goodwill have worked to create a better community for the students of Williams. It is a hard problem. How do you bring together young men and women from so many different places, with such a diversity of backgrounds and interests? Creating common, shared experiences — however arbitrary they may be — is a good place to start. Mountain Day works, not because they is anything particularly interesting about Stone Hill, but because we all climb it together.
Until a class of JAs decide as a group to learn the words (by heart) themselves during their training and then to teach it to all the First Years before the first evening’s events, “The Mountains” will remain a relic of a Williams that time has passed by.
But that is up to you. Once a tradition like this is started, it will go on forever. And you will be responsible for that. A hundred years from now the campus will look as different from today as today looks from 1914, but, if you seize this opportunity, Williams students and alumni will still be singing “The Mountains.”
Congratulations on being selected as a JA. It is a singular honor and responsibility.
Dave Kane ’88
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