As I was settling into a routine at the University, the students were also starting school. Unlike the United States, the academic year starts mid-September and continues after the first of the new year. Last week I wrote about the traditional uniform worn by the returning students. The other academic ritual is “Praxe” which is from the Greek praxis and describes student traditions in universities, primarily initiation rituals for the freshman. Praxe is a tradition that dates to the 16th Century and is intended to reduce social inhibitions and to welcome the freshman into the University community. It is organized by the students and they do skits and funny jokes to break down the barriers between cohorts of students and to encourage silliness and fun. At least that is the intention. But like all rituals, things can be taken too far and praxe can result in humiliation and violence and a violation of the code and values of the community. In talking to graduates, some look fondly back at these days of silliness and belonging while others did not participate in praxe at all (it is voluntary but nonparticipation has social consequences). Some departments refuse to allow it all.
I view this activity through the lens of our American University fraternities and sororities. I’ve witnessed students doing a lot of silly things at the University of Pittsburgh in the name of becoming part of a group. I think that it is a human and evolutionary aspect of humanity to belong; we form groups for safety and companionship and for being part of a collective—a pack. But like all activities, things can go too far, and have in Portugal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxe, as they have in the United States.
For the most part what I have witnessed is some silliness—running down empty sidewalks at 7:30 AM, a time no student, American or Portuguese, would willingly go out to run. But I also witnessed something disturbing praxe activities this week . One afternoon I watched students from one department kneeling on the cobblestones in a submissive position for more than 30 minutes wearing paper crowns and with senior students in the uniform screaming at them to say “yes sir” repeatedly. This wasn’t the Weasley twins pulling pranks. It was using power to humiliate and I’m not sure of the purpose other than to make one group feel superior over another for no reason other than the difference in the years that they entered the university. These actions seem to set up a repeating cycle of humiliation and the desire to be the bully in the future. Rituals have many purposes. As Hobbs, the founder of a group approach wrote, rituals and ceremonies are important. They provide continuity, a sense of belonging to something more than yourself. They are a mechanism for older students to exercise compassion, inclusiveness and to model the values of the group. But rituals can become twisted when people need to exercise power, often because they have experienced a sense of powerlessness. It is student empowerment, but empowerment that is the opposite of what one would want in a community of scholars
If you want to build a community, give these intelligent students wicked problems to solve—how do engineers build water delivery systems so young women in Angola and Mozambique don’t have to spend hours a day getting water, and can go to school. How can you convince students to not take up smoking—sounds like a great social marketing campaign for business students. The possibilities for building communities are unlimited. But the changes will need to come from the student body. I hope that the “anti-praxe” movement becomes the “alternative praxe movement” so that the next time I come back, I’ll see a different praxe occurring in Portugal.