Peeling away the layers of the Rock controversy

    Four days ago, I wrote an opinion column titled “Chipping away tradition” about a group of students who decided to expose the Rock’s surface for its historical value. The reaction that the editorial received was truly astounding, and the subsequent debate was often heated, emotional, and extremely personal.

    Before discussing the the debate and its significance, a few clarifications are in order.

    First, the students pictured in the original article are not members of the Rock Excavation Organization. Apparently, they were handed axes and screwdrivers by someone who appeared sufficiently authoritative, and the job seemed like fun.

    Second, some readers have suggested that the university itself sandblasts paint off the Rock. The frequency with which the university removes the paint appears to range anywhere from every quarter to every decade. I haven’t gotten a straight answer from the university about this information, but I have no reason to believe that the university does not occasionally remove paint from the Rock. One student suggested that, mathematically, the Rock would be much larger if every layer of paint since the 1960s remained on the Rock. If these suggestions are true, I deeply apologize for the error. I confess that I reported only what I was told at the time.

    Regardless, the news that students were chipping this paint sparked an unprecedented debate. And the debate is not limited to the comments section of the article, either: one Northwestern grad student began a spinoff Facebook group, “Northwestern Students/Alumni against peeling the rock,” claiming a membership of close to 800 members as of Sunday afternoon. To put it plainly: people care about the Rock.

    But this issue goes far beyond the Rock and what a group of students may or may not have removed from it. The general outcry demonstrates that the Northwestern community cares deeply about its traditions. The comments captured the fact that, when tradition is tampered with, those involved with the tradition feel tampered with as well.

    Ironically, The Rock Excavation Organization (REO) began their project due to a reverence for tradition. They wanted to expose the campus to a portrait of the Rock before the first Northwestern students began painting it. Unfortunately, the student body did not want to be exposed to this particular piece of history. At least, not at the expense of an already-dear tradition.

    And that’s not the only irony in this situation: painting the Rock that the student group attempted to expose was once called vandalism. Today, chipping away this paint to expose the Rock is called vandalism. And that’s a lesson here. Traditions are subject to evolution.

    In the piles of chipped paint, a few questions emerge: who gets to decide how traditions are carried out? Traditions belong to the youngest generation, of course. But a single generation is not always in complete consensus. So who decides what’s acceptable? The student body, by vote, as some suggested? Or is all fair for the sake of art? Up until now, there was no “fair use contract” for the Rock, beyond the generally agreed upon 24-hour “guard before you paint” rule. Should there be?

    It is possible that these students weren’t doing anything the university doesn’t do regularly. I don’t know. But, to be quite honest, that’s not really the point.

    The point is that it is our traditions that tether us together. To alter these traditions is to alter something that ties us to our peers and our fellow Wildcats from generations past. It’s possible that the students who chipped away at the Rock didn’t tamper with anything. But they ignited something deep inside our student body. And the backlash that occurs when tradition is breached, whether the infraction is real or perceived, is a force to be reckoned with.

    Let’s keep our traditions safe. They mean a lot to a great many people, and they bind us together in ways that even our community does not understand until they are broken.


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