The West Point Class Goat

Student Responses and the Two Cultures

Recently, some community college philosophy students encountered a West Point tradition and tried to make sense of it, with only a description of a ritual to go by.  Here is what they had to go on:

An interesting feature of the folk version of Wisdom is that it is often surprising and even paradoxical. I think this is an example.

Last year I was invited to attend the graduation of a friend's son from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was an impressive experience.

During the ceremony, the names are called and the cadets go up to get their diplomas. At one point, a name was called and the rest of the graduating officers broke into loud cheering and applauding. Those who had already received their diplomas, rolled into white baton-like objects seen from a distance, blandished them enthusiastically.  A great fuss was made over this student who was about to receive the diploma. Who was it? It was the "Class Goat," the student graduating with the poorest academic record.

I was assured by all who are familiar with The Point that the cheering is in no way ironic or sarcastic. This is not a "nya, nya..." but a heartfelt cheer for an esteemed fellow officer.

The cadets are expressing some of their tribal wisdom. Why do they cheer the student with the lowest grades? 

Here are some responses.  As you will see, they all show intelligence and tolerance. 

1. I think they cheer for the student with the lowest GPA because they want to show support. Even though the student didnt do as well as the others that doesnt mean he or she didnt try. Its better to build up than to tear down cause you never know when you will be the one with the loweest GPA. 

2. I think that they cheer for the classmate with the lowest GPA because you are only as strong as your weakest link. As a unit they cheer for "the goat" to show their support and encouragement for this person to continue what they are doing and to become better and more successful. A school like this is more about success as a group not really success for each individual. 

3. I agree with Melissa about only being as strong as your weakest link. I also feel that it simply comes down to hazing, which is sometimes a serious problems in certain military institutes (my brother mentioned this when he was in military school). It was probably just a gentle way of poking fun of their weakest link. 

4. This is just a guess but maybe they aren't cheering for the class goat but for everyone else. It may be a sarcastic celebration of not being last in the class. 

These responses seem fully consonant with the values of our new "inclusive" institutional world-view, which clashes with the "official" reason, the one given by the cadets themselves. 

The West Pointers claim that they cheer this student for his or her achievements and accomplishments.  They cheer not for the trendy "who they are" but for the eternal "what they did."  According to their classmates, getting through West Point (basically, an engineering college) is hard enough when you are good at academics.  When you have to struggle, it requires perseverance, a virtue much valued by the military as "character" or "guts."  It is this heroic quality shown by the class goat that they cheer. (I sometimes wonder if slower learners and students who struggle realize how much the faculty and other students may admire them precisely for their perseverance.)

Of course, since Freud et. al. we instinctively assume baser motives lurking in the unconscious. Maybe projection or reaction-formation is at work and what seems like a cheer is deep down a jeer.  We cannot dismiss such possibilities as mere cynicism. Indeed, it could even be that the class goat is valued for the same reason the scapegoat was valued. 

Still, an application of Occam's Razor suggests we should take the cadets at their word. After meeting and chatting with a few of them, I am inclined to believe them.

2 responses
I suspect the reasons change and it's the tradition that remains the same. My father went to West Point. He tells about an upperclassman who made it his mission to teach my father to laugh. My father had to stand at attention and say, "Ha ha ha, sir" at this guys whim - all manner of places and situations. If he'd laughed in the first place he would have been hazed. Nothing diabolical and pretty typical of the cadet corps back then. Also, I realize the upside of initiation rites. I wonder if they can still do that and if the cadets today would have the same reasons they had in the 50's.
Yes. Didn't the cadets have to eat "square meals," meaning they had to move fork from plate to mouth in a distinct rectangular path? I wonder if they do that still. Agreed that there are as many readings of tradition as there are participants. Thirteen blackbirds and all. But for me the official story remains charming.