The Texas Aggies—well, let’s just say few other student bodies resemble them in unified outlook or devotion to tradition. That may well change. The hammer of conformity, of homogenization, has been heard banging on the Aggies’ door since the bonfire debacle.

The debacle was bad enough: a dozen Aggies killed in the collapse of the spirit-building bonfire. Worse, this non-Aggie submits, would be a shamefaced retreat by the Aggies from their traditions, from their singular way of presenting themselves to the world. There are, nonetheless, those who want them to, and I predict their voices will rise ever more insistently.

To tell the truth, A&M even now isn’t what it used to be. It once was the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, founded in 1876 (a great-great-grandfather of mine was the first president); a haven for farm boys with ambition and yet practical aspirations. You went to Aggieland—most likely from a small town or the farm—to become a veterinarian or an engineer, emerging with a good degree.

While at A&M—which in the old days was all-male—you belonged to the Corps of Cadets, a Reserve Officer Training Corps program that amply supplied the U.S. Army with officers. Yon wore uniforms all the time: boots and sabers by the senior year. You spoke a particular lingo. An Aggie friend of mine, when I was visiting as a University of Texas debater, showed me around. Some of the fellowship and rah-rah spirit might seem forced, but it did knit together a diversity of folk.

At football games, the Aggies stood, and still stand, throughout. Whenever the team scored, they kissed their dates. They sang The Spirit of Aggieland: “We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we. True to each other as Aggies can be.”

This was the old A&M; not to be confused with the extinct. A&M went co-ed in the early 60’s and changed its name to Texas A&M University (finessing the question of what “A” and “M” stand for). It has achieved national stature, educationally. The economics faculty is fiercely free market. (Phil Gramm once taught there.) The George Bush presidential library is housed on the campus. Students are generally conservative. There are sororities and fraternities now. Perhaps predictably, considering what America has latterly become, only about 2,000 Aggies (out of 40,000-plus) belong to the Corps. Still, A&M accords Aggie traditions, centered on the Corps, a becoming kind of priority.

Among those traditions: a 5 5-foot-high bonfire to fire up spirit before the annual Thanksgiving game with arch-rival Texas. It was this bonfire pile that collapsed a few days before the game, plunging the state into sympathetic gloom—and casting doubt on such an alpha-male tradition, with its elements of organized work, hierarchically directed; fraternal bonding; and exuberant celebration. Reports of drunkenness and bad engineering are seeping into the public prints.

Will they (whoever “they” may be: editorial writers, professors, female legislators, do-gooders) eventually come down on the Aggies, directing that the bonfire (called “Bonfire” by the Ags) be made safe and salubrious? Perhaps a 20-foot-high bonfire: How would that be? Or maybe professionals will take it over, ruining the participatory nature of the event.

It all seems a small thing. But you never know about small things. They sometimes get bigger than anyone suspects. Destruction of the bonfire tradition could usher in a reassessment of the contradictory faces of modern Texas A&M: Kappa Sigs and Corps members; “Ag” and African studies; sabers and computers; the past and the future. Such contradictions seem under control at the moment, with convictions of various sorts enjoying respect, or at least tolerance.

But such is the modern obsession with safety’ and health that one can imagine a movement just to get rid of the old ways and old ideas. The feminization of A&M, like the feminization of the military, and of the church, and of a lot of other institutions, challenges every institution perceived as male, wholly or partly. (Do any wholly male institutions, come to think of it, remain, outside the Roman Catholic priesthood?)

The Aggie bonfire, conceived by males, built by males—though a woman student-worker died in the bonfire’s collapse—exemplifies A&M’s male past. I have the sense that the feminists, for sentimental or programmatic reasons, are coming after the bonfire, and that they may enjoy some success at smoothing down its rough places, making it perhaps, in time, just another event on the school calendar instead of a fiery link between A&M’s past and its present. And then what? The Corps—even though it has a few women? The uniforms, the yells, the boots and spurs . . . the tradition?

It may or may not matter. There was a Texas before the old A&M; there will be a Texas if all the old fades away. But you hate to see it, and you hate to see it done for unbecoming reasons. Wordsworth had it about right, if you’ll pardon the pre-P.C. lingo: “Men are we and must mourn when e’en the shade / Of that which once was great has passed away.”