Sometimes, I think we forget how old Kalamazoo College really is. It is easy enough to spout the fact that we are one of the top one hundred oldest academic institutions in the country, older even than the state we reside in. It is also easy to bask in the glow of an academic reputation that has been painstakingly cultivated for nearly two centuries, complete with the traditional college aesthetic of ivy-covered towers. It is much more difficult to understand what all that really means.
I spent the bulk of my long weekend waist-deep in the Kalamazoo College Digital Archives, reading through old copies of The Index in the vain hope of doing exactly this; to capture the paper’s historical “essence” so that I may put it into words and share it with our contemporary readers. But throughout the process, I have come to realize that the 140-year-long history of The Index, like most 140-year-long histories, cannot be truly captured in the course of a single article (even if my editors were kind enough to increase the word limit for me).
To give you a good idea of how old the paper actually is and perhaps an understanding of the value of recording for posterity, the very first edition of The Index in 1877 lists the annual cost of tuition for a semester at Kalamazoo College at a grand total of $6. One 1899 issue includes an editorial encouraging students to come out and meet the visiting servicemen from the 33rd Michigan Volunteers, who fought for the Union in the American Civil War.
As time goes on, one can see American and world history unfolding in the pages through the eyes of those on campus. The Industrial Revolution manifests itself in both pro- and anti-labor union editorials, while reports of K students and alumni serving in both world wars line the “personal” section. The Summer of Love can be read in an investigative piece on public perception of LSD, and the HIV/AIDS crisis comes to campus in “Off the Quad” polls about the installation of condom dispensers in the residence halls.
Of course, The Index’s first and foremost goal was always to report on the college itself, particularly, events and individuals on campus, with their emotional and journalistic weight ranging from pieces like “Allergy Season Hits K” to “Investigation Confirms Deaths to be Murder-Suicide.” Most often, our history is explicit; a front-page news story about the dedication of Stetson Chapel in April of 1932 or the inauguration of College President Weimer K. Hicks in 1953, for example. Other times, it can be read between the lines; such is the case in 1962 feature, encouraging students to “prepare” for a literary journal “years” in the making — foreshadowing what would ultimately become The Cauldron.
In this, one can see the college’s spirit of activism and social justice throughout the pages of The Index, both in the events its writers chose to report on, as well as in how they chose to report on them. More than a decade before some of us joined the 2017 Women’s March, The Index was reporting on K students traveling to the nation’s capital to protest the controversial election of George W. Bush. The 1960s brought a number of articles on student-lead Vietnam “Peace Vigils” and campus response to the assassinations of major figures of the period, as well as scathing editorials on “racist” campus policies in light of the growing Civil Rights Movement. As far back as 1912, the campus’s longtime drive to change our world can be summed up in one of the many poems published by the paper, entitled “The Bitter Cry of the Oppressed,” which reads:
Tell me not in joyful numbers,
History is a pleasant dream.
No, it is a horrid nightmare!!!
For the cursed, a proper theme.
Of course, it was not always deadly serious. Rather, I think the thing surprised me the most about The Index through the years is its incredible capacity for humor. Long before Buzzkill ever became a thing, K students were funny. In the paper’s very first issue, in-between a serious editorial regarding college funding and a report on student organizations with names like “Sherwood Rhetorical Society” and “The Philolexian Lyceum,” can be found a poem entitled “How to Eat a Potato.” Ten years later, under a section entitled “locals,” some smartass writes that “it is again becoming quite popular among the college boys to think they can raise full beards and several of them are trying it.” What’s more, there have been a ridiculous number of satirical sections over the years: the 1980s and 1990s had “Backpage” and “Sindex,” respectively, with such timepieces as “Molly Ringwald’s Lips Explode” and “The End of the World As We Know It, and We’re Not Fine,” recounted by such legendary journalists as “Ralph the Wonder Llama,” “Joan of Arc” and “R.U. Shyttynmie.”
With all this said, I hope our readers can forgive the decades-long gaps one could undoubtedly find in my genuine, but ultimately failed attempt to capture the elusive essence of our paper. I am convinced that to truly understand the history of The Index, one must also understand the history of the college, the state, and the country that it exists within — no easy feat, to be sure. Someone could write a SIP — and maybe someone should — about the The Index and its historical place in our campus community, and it might still never capture all we have been, all that we are, and all we still hope to be.