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Initiation is the last thing

The University of St Andrews in Scotland is one of the oldest in the world, being over 600 years old. In that time many traditions have been formed and passed on, one of which is that students in their third and fourth year offer to become “mother” or “father” to students arriving at the university; they welcome the new students, introduce them to other “family” members they have adopted (that year and in previous years), include them in activities and generally assist them in settling in to university life. At the end of five weeks, at what is known as “Raisin Weekend”, the “children” give their “parents” what used to be a bag of raisins (but now happens to be a bottle of wine), as a way of saying “Thank You” for their care and attention, and in return the “parent” gives their “child” a “receipt”, which, as custom would obviously hold, being an old university, is written in Latin. In truth the “receipt” may be written on anything, not simply on a piece of paper, and the “child” then has to carry, wear or go with the “receipt” for the whole of Monday morning around the town — the “receipt” may be written on a mattress, a television, a nightie, anything.

by Tim Middleton

Such a tradition is thoroughly positive, in contrast (sadly) to a society within the same university which requires people who want to join it to undergo various initiation rites. These tend to be done behind closed doors, in front of all other members of the society, under an absolute oath of secrecy, as a test as to whether the student may join the society. The tests will usually involve drink, dress, dance or song in ridiculous amounts, contexts or manners, with the ultimate embarrassment intended to be the rejection of the student for not providing the comic element.

Initiation can be good, no mistake. The start of something is obviously important and is often worthy of celebration; it can even be commendable. In that regard we may see initiation as being positive, worthy and noble; the welcome offered to a new member should be assuring and uplifting. For the most part, however, initiations are seen as a test or proof of the individual’s commitment and willingness, more than his suitability, to join the selected community. How far will he go to join?

In truth, however, for the most part the purpose of many initiations is to demean, humiliate, debase, embarrass or mock the individual. The initiation is set up on the premise that “You cannot be one of us until you have made a fool of yourself in front of us”. Most of the chosen activities, tasks or challenges are ridiculous, dangerous, hazardous, ludicrous, hilarious (for some) or faintly humorous (for others). It is for the most part formalised bullying, forcing people to do things they do not want to do but made to appear reasonable by decreeing it is only “a bit of fun”. Instead of uniting it only serves to distance and divide members. It is saying that entry into that community is conditional.

We must train people to realise that it is not initiation that is required; it is integration. New members of any group need to be integrated more than initiated. While individuality is important, no-one is independent so all members need to be integrated fully, sensitively (allowing for their many differences), respectfully. They need to be integrated, woven together, intertwined and interlinked, knitted together, combining the various strengths and opportunities that each brings as an individual, in order to make the whole stronger. People need to realise through integration that they are an integral member of the community — essential, fundamental, central, vital.

In schools we need to integrate new pupils, parents and staff into the roles and responsibilities allocated to them, so that they all know they have a significant part to play; we need to integrate all aspects of life into the curriculum; we need to integrate all aspects of the curriculum into all other parts of the curriculum; we need to integrate the curriculum into the school’s vision, mission and values; we need to integrate the school into the local community.

Integration allows the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts; it promotes the culture that “the star of the team is the team”.

Initiation is not what is required, in schools, universities, teams, societies or any other organisations; it is the last thing to be considered, not the first thing! Integration is what is needed. Integration is integral for the success of a community and is closely linked to integrity (whereby we do the right things right). There is no integrity in many an initiation — surely we can see the “Raisin” in that?

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