How Portuguese Students of ISCTE Initiate Their Freshmen Into the New Academic Year
A Peculiar Welcoming Celebration
In Portugal, there is a tradition of welcoming new students to the academic life by celebrating what is called Praxes; quite an original festivity that has brought as many laughs as controversies and disputes.
It is the first week of classes at the Portuguese university of ISCTE (Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa). Groups of freshmen walk around with numbers and letters painted in their faces, as the entire school gathers at the main patio to start a celebration that will last a week. Faculties are easily recognized by their outfits: wigs, Bob Marley’s hats, colored shirts. A friendly war materializes and faculties shout their mottos at each other: Como é que é? Como é que é? Iscte, Iscte, conas abertas, caralhos em pé! ISCTE! ISCTE! Standing ovation of applauses, the enthusiasm is obvious. Is this normal? I asked. These are the Praxes!
In Portugal, as part of an ancient tradition that began at the University of Coimbra, approximately five centuries ago, there is a quite singular approach to initiate freshmen into their new school. Each academic year, a committee formed by school veterans, together with what is called the Praxes’ Commission; join strengths to give an unusual welcoming to the first-year students or, as they are called in Portuguese, caloiros. The stirring greeting consists of laughs, declarations of strength, and a kind of fun, that in particular cases can be considered humiliating for the newcomers. This is known as the Academic Praxes and at ISCTE; such thing is taken to a very serious and solemn level.
The hierarchic pyramid
The Dux veteranorum is the main exponent of the Academic Praxes, usually a student with the higher number of enrollment years at the university. He is considered a leader who is listened and followed by the Veteran’s Council, and mightily worshiped by the freshmen. All the veterans use an outfit known as the Capa e Batina; consisting of a black suit and a black cloak that gives them a highly respectable appearance. Following the Veteran’s Council is the Praxes’ Commission, basically in charge of organizing and directing the caloiros. This group is easily recognizable because they all wear the same specific color t-shirt. For 2009 they chose blue.
Holding to tradition
Praxes’ follow a simple principle: to initiate freshmen into their new academic institution, and encourage their socialization with the rest of the students. Year to year, new rituals are invented; new ways of deciding on the fate of the proudly praxed caloiros are created. Jokes go from get off that chair without touching the floor to, every time a planes passes by, get down; in ISCTE’s case, buildings are very close to the airport. Students carry out clumsy parodies, foolish representations in front of the veterans, always under the direction of a Commission member.One day of the praxes’ week, all the caloiros go exclaiming and shouting out their mottos to the closest rival university. They are guided by the Dux, the Veteran’s council and the Praxes’ commission. The last day, after thousands of tricky jokes the caloiros are baptized and welcomed by the veteran that will be of their assistance in any matter for the rest of the academic year. They are also given a passport symbolizing their access to the huge academic community that is now part of their brand-new student routine.
Controversy about praxes
I had the chance to watch an interesting episode at ISCTE. An anti-praxe individual furtively launched an egg through one of the building’s windows; straight to the Veteran’s Council’s group standing on a platform. Plaff! No one had the chance to see exactly what happened. The antagonism was clear; someone tried to sabotage an absolutely pacific activity at the main patio. Members of the council went after the agitator, while the rest began to clamor mottos supporting Praxes and its principle. The Dux invited those against, to discuss ideas and debate their clearly different points of view. Praxes have brought a lot of controversy because of some of the techniques used to exert control over the caloiros. Some agree that these types of practices, (certain cases where there has been psychological and physical violence) can offend, degrade and deeply wound students. To defend these beliefs, many Anti-praxes’ movements have been created. In 2003, a manifest was conceived and signed by important figures of the Portuguese culture such as Pedro Abruhnosa.
Dura Praxis, Sed Praxis (Praxe is harsh, but it is the Praxe)
Even though some students might disagree with some of the practices of the Academic Praxes, there is still the support of hundreds, which got an extraordinary experience out of it. Praxes are a symbol of cultural persistence, a symbol of students creating their own way to communicate, to relate to each other. There must be prudence and respect, as in anything in life; there must be laughs and embarrassing moments. Praxes mark the begging of a great start for caloiros as long as that start can always be remembered as: the good times.