by Dan Laskin
My wife phoned from out in Ohio, where she was interviewing for a job teaching French.
"You would love it here," she said. "There's this tiny little village, and a walkway that goes through everything."
You mean like a sidewalk.
"No. It's a path. They have this special name for it."
A special . . . path?
"It's hard to explain."
A promenade? A pedestrian zone?
"Never mind. You just have to see it. The campus is beautiful."
But there's a town, right?
"Sort of. It's different."
Different, or peculiar?
"I really think you'll love it."
That was twenty years ago. And my wife was right. Kenyon charmed me, and even though I eventually realized that it wasn't perfect, I found that I had already sworn a kind of allegiance to its peculiarities.
All of this is by way of explaining why the word "un-Kenyon" struck me when I noticed it cropping up a few years ago in response to various campus changes, and why it kept popping into my mind as I researched my Bulletin story about Kenyon controversies (see Family Squabbles).
Un-Kenyon. The term-a pejorative, uttered in tones of complaint, dismay, disgust, outrage, or bitter grieving at the destruction of all things sweet and good-may be relatively recent, but it feels as well-worn as that special path.
"That is so un-Kenyon." There's not a more Kenyon expression in the contemporary phrase book. It's a fighting word (or at least a grousing word), the ultimate seal of disapproval.
Often, the reference point is architecture or campus design. The notion, knowingly expressed by students whose actual experience of Kenyon may encompass only a few months, is that anything sleek, modern, or expensive-anything not aristocratically stone-clad, village homespun, or quaintly shabby-runs counter to the character of the place and eats away at its soul.
The power of the term comes from the endearing assumption that there is some Platonic ideal of Kenyonness, irrefutably true and intuitively known to everyone.
Case in point: the spectacular Kenyon Athletic Center, which raised some eyebrows when plans were unveiled. Critics argued that it was too big, cost too much, would waste energy, would cause light pollution, and (because it was so damn cool) would suck the life out of downtown Gambier. With all that glass, it was also too glaringly contemporary. All in all, un-Kenyon.
Oddly, almost everyone fell in love with "the KAC" as soon as the doors opened. Overnight, it became a normal part of the daily routine-a given, a landmark, a point of pride. Some, perhaps, are still stewing over the KAC's supposed un-Kenyonness, even as they bounce on the elliptical machines before grabbing some post-workout sushi. But it's probably safe to say that nobody misses the Kenyonesque gloom of Wertheimer Fieldhouse or the capricious ventilation system of Ernst.
To go from the tremendous to the trivial, consider the wall of coolers in the new food area of the bookstore, consolidating all soda choices but towering glassily like, well, like the KAC, and humming like a force field. Efficient? Maybe. Un-Kenyon? Arguably. Why? Well, because of the convenience, the size, the glistening newness, or maybe the $4.57 price tag on a 15.2-ounce bottle of Naked Juice. (On the other hand, "Naked Juice" has a timeless Kenyon ring to it.)
It's not that Kenyonites reject modernity per se. Although cell phones are widely seen as un-Kenyon, students are addicted to them. The iPod is so popular that the Collegian runs an occasional column, "Pod Profiles," noting the tunes that random kids have buzzing in their ear-buds. And can anyone imagine life without laptops?
But we view all master plans and renewal projects with a curmudgeonly eye. We're attached to our well-worn environs, despite-and because of-their imperfections. During the debate over swipe cards two years ago (again, see Family Squabbles), a Campus Senate member exclaimed at one point, "What's next? Are we going to tear down the old moldy buildings?"
Only at Kenyon do we summon righteous indignation on behalf of mold. And for good reason. The alternative might be . . . is likely to be . . . will undoubtedly be . . . un-Kenyon.