Whitties still possess missionary spirit

Cara Lowry

Four years ago, I was a senior in high school about to make what at that point was the most important decision of my life: where to attend college. As your typical over-analytical 17-year-old girl, I naturally resorted to pro-con lists. On Whitman’s, nestled in among things like “free laundry” and “24-hour library” was “missionary mascot.” I found it quirky and unique (not to mention wonderful in its potential for sexual innuendo: “Missionaries, Missionaries, we’re on top!”).

But most importantly, as the history nerd that I am (give me a Ken Burns documentary over that new rom-com with that cute actor any day), the missionary mascot inspired me to investigate the problematic past to which our college will forever be linked. To truly know the essence of a thing, one has to understand its history. To deny our past––especially on the grounds of being shameful or uncomfortable––is extremely dangerous. Doing so breeds complacency and ignorance. It all comes down to that age-old cliché about learning from the errors of the past so that we do not repeat them in the future.

People argue that the missionary mascot fails to be a rallying point for students and does not foster unity, pride or school spirit. I think it fails to do these things because we’ve failed to take the time to get to know it.

They argue that it smacks of imperialism, cultural domination and the empiricism of traditional Western thought, and that, because these are things that Whitman encourages us to critically examine, our mascot inherently misrepresents us as a community. I think that this viewpoint––while valid––is restricting.

Yes, in countless ways the history of American westward expansion is tragic and atrocious, but it is neither one-sided nor black and white. Yes, missionaries like Marcus and Narcissa Whitman worked to promote their God and their ideals, but not because they deviously sought to destroy and oppress a native culture. They genuinely hoped both to learn from and to work for the betterment of the peoples they encountered.

Today at Whitman this same drive for service to others––for making better––is in full force. How many Whitties volunteer in Walla Walla independently or through opportunities like the Whitman Mentor and Adopt-A-Grandparent programs? How many of us spend our breaks and summers on service trips? How many of us go on to programs like Teach for America, the Peace Corps and Americorps after graduating? How many of us want to change the world for the better? While we’ve come a long way from our clerical roots (Whitman College was founded as Whitman Seminary), our essential commitment to good and to human betterment has remained.

Whitman is a positive force, striving to instill in us an apparent approach to life: one founded on critical thinking, well-roundedness and the pursuit of one’s passions (whatever they may be). Simultaneously, our commitment to respecting a diversity of peoples, cultures, viewpoints and ideals––while commendable and important––often pushes us to adopt a sense of hyper-political correctness, which at times limits more than it allows us to grow.

In a 2007 Pioneer article titled “Whitman’s history: ‘Swept under the rug?'” a then-senior was quoted as saying, “I don’t think it [the missionary] reflects Whitman, we’re not about converting people, we’re about critical thinking and helping people.”

I would offer an alternate interpretation: We are missionaries, but in a sense different from the Protestant wagon-train variety of the mid-19th century. “Critical thinking” is our new religion; “helping people” is still our mission.