Columns

Alyssa Ratledge ’11: Do you know what today is?

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last month, the debate over renaming Columbus Day “Fall Weekend” captured the community’s attention for the second year in a row. I have little doubt that next year, we’ll see all the same people saying all the same things yet again. Protests and debate on campus and off proved that it will be a long time before people get over the change in name.

By contrast, I suspect that the University’s observance of Veterans Day — or lack thereof — will result in precisely nothing. No letters to the editor, no protests, and no Fox News coverage of the fact that Brown does not recognize a federal holiday observed in every state across the country.

In fact, unless they notice the ceremony on Lincoln Field on the way to their 1 p.m. classes, most students will likely go about their Wednesdays without reflecting for even a moment on the significance of Veterans Day. Some may not realize that today, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day at all.

My first year at Brown, I simply assumed that Veterans Day was a day off from classes, as it had been my entire life. I went to the small, sparsely attended ceremony on the Main Green and reflected on the sacrifices made by America’s veterans, including several members of my family. When I returned to my room, solemn and contemplative, I found an e-mail from a friend in one of my classes asking after my absence. Apparently, I had missed a great lecture that morning.

Imagine my surprise: Columbus Day, which had never in my K-12 career been a holiday from school, merits time off more than Veterans Day does. Columbus Day, which had been celebrated at my elementary school with the same reverence with which we celebrated Arbor Day, is more important to the University than Veterans Day. Rather than reserving the day for reflection and tribute, students have classes, work, paper deadlines, office hours and all the rest. It is a day like any other. But it shouldn’t be.

I don’t know why the University doesn’t cancel classes on Veterans Day, as most universities do. Perhaps it has to do with Brown’s current wariness of the armed services, manifested in the ban on military recruiters and ROTC from campus since the Vietnam War (though ostensibly due to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy now). Perhaps it has to do with the politics of many students and professors, who do not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or war in general. Perhaps it is a simple calendar matter: the University could afford only one additional holiday during the fall semester, and Columbus Day won out.

No matter the reason, the decision not to recognize Veterans Day officially not only does a huge disservice to Brown’s veterans, current and past, but to the rest of the Brown community as well. The University has a proud history of military service: Brown students, staff and faculty have served in every war and military conflict since the American Revolution. There are numerous landmarks around campus, from Soldiers Arch to the plaques in Patriot’s Court, commemorating those who gave their lives for the country.    

The current faculty, staff, undergraduates and graduate students who have served in the armed forces will undoubtedly be reflecting on their service today, will be taking the time to honor those killed in the line of duty. Why doesn’t the University choose to join them?

Chaney Harrison ’11, president of the Brown Student Veterans Society, said that the University’s choice not to observe Veterans Day makes it difficult for his group to plan the sort of event needed to commemorate the day properly. Since University policy forbids amplified sound on the Main Green during class hours, the Student Veterans Society is limited to the 12:00-12:50 time slot on Lincoln Field to hold the ceremony.

Due to scheduling constraints of the keynote speaker, Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., the event will begin at 12:30 p.m., leaving the group exactly 20 minutes to complete the entire ceremony. That’s holding a procession from the flagpole to Soldiers Arch, offering a prayer, hearing from  President Ruth Simmons, Senator Reed and other speakers and dedicating the wreaths, all in 20 minutes. It hardly seems sufficient to honor the sacrifices veterans have made in the name of our country.

Even if the University refuses to give a full holiday for Veterans Day, they should make it more of a priority. Chaney hopes that next year, the University will set aside classes and operations a few hours, during which the entire campus can join in a ceremony. In 1993, on the 75th anniversary of Soldiers Arch, the bell in University Hall rang 243 times — once for every Brown veteran killed in 20th century armed conflicts. In comparison, allowing a few hours, officially recognized, for a ceremony seems a small gesture.

Veterans Day is meant to be a day to remember. Why does it seem that almost everyone at Brown has forgotten it?

Alyssa Ratledge ’11 is a public policy concentrator from Mesa, Ariz., where everyone observes Veterans Day, and no one observes Columbus Day. Er, Fall Weekend.