Secrets and traditions over time
How Honor, secret societies embody rituals on Grounds
The word “tradition” is one that carries a lot of weight at this University. Students hear about it time and time again, from the beginning of orientation to the day of graduation. But at a school with almost 200 years of history, tradition is nebulous idea — many have come and gone, while others have lasted through the ages.
Friday The Jefferson Society cosponsored The Miller Center’s fourth annual Secrets and Traditions event, where students and alumni gathered to hear Jefferson Trust Director Wayne Cozart speak about secret societies, the honor system and other University traditions.
“We learn something new every time we go (to the Secrets and Traditions event),” said Class of 1961 alumnus John Wright.
One tradition that consistently leaves both students and alumni baffled is the prevalence of secret societies at the University. These societies have been around for more than 100 years — the oldest, the Z Society, was founded in 1892.
Secret societies do more than haunt Grounds during the night hours and leave envelopes hidden under chairs — they contribute to the University through philanthropic donations and encouraging students to play active roles in their communities.
“They sort of keep their finger on the pulse of the University to make sure that everything is going well and that it’s a good experience,” Howard said.
A particularly exciting night each year for secret societies is April 13 — Founder’s Day, or Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. The Sons and Daughters of Liberty, another secret society, performs a ritual on the Lawn and posts a list of “Rebels and Tyrants” on the doors of the Rotunda, honoring some students and teasing others.
Founder’s Day used to be an even larger tradition, and before the days of fraternities or athletic events the Jefferson Society would throw a large ball that was attended by nearly everyone at the University, Howard said. To this day, the Jefferson Society still hosts a black tie formal in the dome of the Rotunda on Founder’s Day, but not to the same level of grandeur.
Another tradition that has faded with time — to the dismay of our 21-and-over students — is Easter’s, a huge party thrown by fraternities in Mad Bowl every spring in the 1970s. And though it has survived in students’ football attire, wearing coats and ties to class was once the norm.
Though many of these traditions revolve around specific events, there are plenty of traditions within the University that are present in everyday life.
“I would say any time you even visit the Lawn or visit the Amphitheater and really take the time to appreciate it, that is acknowledging tradition,” third-year College student Hannah Bondurant said.
The idea of student self-governance was a founding principle the the University, and each time students write the honor pledge on an assignment or leave their computer in the library unattended, they are participating in the tradition of honor. Even Z Society members, when asked if they are a member of the society, do not lie; they are required to walk away in accordance with the honor code.
“Some traditions are so ingrained that you don’t realize that you’re really embodying it and living it every day,” said fourth-year College student Graham Egan, “Obviously Honor is one of the biggest ones — we make that pledge on Convocation before classes, and I think you see that played out so often in how students behave, how they act.”