The Speaking Tradition’s greatest foe

Airpods are ruining our sense of community, and a century-old campus tradition

Will Pittman, Staff Writer

Around 1910, Robert and Jessie Doremus happened to be traveling through Lexington and found themselves at our very own Washington and Lee University. Robert Doremus, longtime New York stock brokerage clerk and member of the NYSE Governing Committee, had been planning to give a gift in support of a Southern college.
When they arrived, the couple was immediately greeted by a student who introduced himself and offered to show them around. As the story goes, the Doremus’ were greeted by everyone they encountered that day — be it student, faculty or staff. Such unprompted friendliness had an effect: Robert Doremus included the University in his will, establishing a trust fund that would revert to Washington and Lee upon his wife’s death. Following Jessie’s death in 1936, the University received $1.5 million (valued around $23 million today) — one of the largest gifts in university history.
Apparently, every freshman used to hear this story. It’s a good one. It doesn’t strike me as any wonder that Robert Doremus — New Jersey native and lifelong New Yorker — was baffled by how he and his wife were received on campus that day. The idea of welcoming and spending time with a stranger, or even just giving them a warm hello, is a foreign one to most New Yorkers or urbanites. Really, it’s foreign to anyone outside of the Washington and Lee community.
And this brings us to the point: the Speaking Tradition. It is why the Doremus’ gave their gift in 1915 and it has brought countless people to Washington and Lee — and made them stay. It is one of those singular parts of the university that you hear explained on tours and see on the website. It makes us the school we are.
Or at least it did.
Since 1928, people have been writing or talking about how the Speaking Tradition is dying. “It seems that every generation thinks it’s being lost,” a ’90 alumni told me. Nostalgia, rosy retrospection, and a strange sense that the past was better than the present seems to pervade every age in one way or another. But this age is different. The Speaking Tradition has found itself in a uniquely precarious position.
Nothing, from the day Washington and Lee was founded in 1749 up until now, has changed social interaction more than the invention of the cell phone, specifically the iPhone. A decade ago, most people had one. Now everyone has one and carries it with them everywhere. The repercussions of this for the Speaking Tradition are obvious and easily seen. Don’t want to have to look at, talk or interact with anyone? Easy — just look at your phone the whole walk to class. The T-shirts at the recent annual ‘Say Hey Day’ had a stick figure on the back glued to their phone — “Don’t be a Phoney,” the shirt read. Clearly, it’s a problem.
But it’s not the problem. It’s pretty difficult to walk the whole way to class on your phone, and even the most sure-footed people will find themselves stumbling. There is, however, another technological loophole that allows avoiding people and one’s environment: the oh-so-glorious headphone.
The headphone, more specifically the AirPod, is everywhere. Where people are walking, working, jogging, snogging, eating, sleeping — you can find those little white circles in their ears. And what an invention! Instead of listening to the loud breathing and typing of a coworker a cubicle over, the worker can listen to the melodious voice of Stevie Nicks. Instead of listening to car engines and lawn mowers, the jogger can listen to the energizing beats of Avicii. Instead of…you get the point.
It’s nice listening to music. Music is good. Popping in your AirPods every time you leave your home, every time you go shopping, every time you walk to class, is bad. You effectively remove yourself from your environment.
“With earbuds,” wrote Dr. Jim Taylor in an article for Psychology Today, “you are creating a virtual wall that surrounds you and that doesn’t readily allow others into your world.” In other words, you are basically telling everyone else that you don’t want to talk or interact with them.
“For me personally I don’t feel comfortable saying hello to someone with AirPods in because I don’t know if they can hear me or not or if they’re having a conversation with someone else,” said a Washington and Lee sophomore. “If someone has airpods in, it’s more of a head nod or hand wave to them. Because even if I know them, I don’t know if they’re listening to death metal full volume — there’s no way to tell.”
Not to mention, earbuds isolate you from your physical environment; they inhibit a real experience of place. The groups of people chatting and laughing on the Colonnade lawn, the bluebirds and robins singing in the campus hollies and oaks, the charming hourly chime of the University Chapel bell — sounds that are unique to our university, that make it the place that it is — are lost with earbuds in.
To me, it seems simple: don’t wear headphones when you walk around campus. You want to wear them when you study in a library carrel? Or when you run on the treadmill in the gym? Great. But to wear them as you walk around campus past your fellow classmates, past the faculty and staff, past a New York couple visiting one afternoon sends a clear message: I don’t care. It’s a lack of care for the others that share this college experience with you, and it’s a lack of care for the place that Washington and Lee is. I can promise you, my friends, that Stevie Nicks and Avicii will be waiting for you when you make it home.
It’s an image of two different universities really. The first is the one the Doremus’ en
countered around 1910. Where students are so perceptive and friendly that they are willing and eager to take the time to show strangers around campus. Where the students, faculty and staff of the Washington and Lee community attend to each other — by greeting, by smiling, by making the effort. This is not an idealized image; this existed and could still.
The second image is the Washington and Lee seen more and more. Where the students are absorbed in their own internal worlds — they are listening to Stevie Nicks or watching Tiktok, meaning they aren’t here; they aren’t present; they aren’t sharing in this community and place we call home.
Social interaction has come under attack this century, which means so has the Speaking Tradition. It has become increasingly easy to divert our attention away from the present, and this has caused problems, especially at a school where a strong sense of community, of place and rootedness, is essential to who we are.
So leave the earbuds behind next time you walk to class. You might hear the bluejay chirping overhead; you might start to get some more hellos. You might start to appreciate and care about this little community we have here. It’s a special place.