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Last April, at the Conference here on Teaching and Moral Responsibility I gave a paper on "Contexts for the Teaching of Values." The third context was the educational institution itself. This year the Conference is focusing on Ethical Dimensions of Institutionl Behavior, and I have taken as my subject the question "Is the Concept of Alma Mater Obsolete." Involved are the core values that are implicit or embodied in a college or university.

Why this question? Because I believe that the student as an educated person is in danger of being lost sight of. Our preoccupation too often seems to be with the college or university as a physical institution, its maintenance as a group of buildings, as a group of activities. Of necessity its focus is on the need of funds, and its relations with the outside community, local, national, international. Should we ignore these functions? By no means. But as we say about our personal day-to-day living, "the urgent tends to crowd out the import ant." Our principal concern must be with the product. We are trying to produce potentially educated persons.

In the Middle Ages the early universities were communities of scholars; associations of masters and students learning together. In many cases students were in search of a teacher, and often highly  critical, if they did not get their money's worth. One observation was that "a university would be a very comfortable place were it not for the students." (Haskins, 1923) Yet we have Chaucer's famous description of the clerk of Oxenford,

The core of the medieval university was the master teacher and his students. That teacher-student relationship remains the core of the learning process today.

The original meaning of the term "Alma Mater" was in the Latin phrase meaning nourishing or fostering mother applied by the Romans to various Godesses such as Ceres and Cybele, the Godesses of agriculture and nature. Used in England as early as the thirteenth century, it was first used in reference to Universities such as Oxford, which were thought of as nourishing or fostering their alumni. Originally meaning nursling or foster child, the word alumnus conveyed a feeling of attachment and gratitude toward an institution that was more personal than the word graduate. Harvard started an Alumni Association in 1840. Today, it is the Alumni/ae who return to their Alma Maters for "Reunions" at the time of Commencements. Those who return are the ones who were leaders, who did something for the institution, and those, whether leaders or not, who felt the institution did something for them. Gifts sometimes come from the most unexpected sources.

Let me describe the ethos of an Alma Mater as I experienced it, and some of the values implicit or embodied in that kind of campus. Many of these values are exemplified in the personalities of the faculty, such as devotion to a field of knowledge, and a dedication to imparting that knowledge to students. We were not always aware of it at the time, but later in retrospect we realized that these were unusualy fine human beings who were genuinely interested in us. We received from them collectively a 'good education.'

What does it take for a professor to be remembered with respect and affection by his students? Take, for example, a freshman English teacher, born in Maine, a graduate of Bowdoin, part Indian, six feet three with a hooked nose and a quizzical smile. A published poet, and a fraternity brother. He was loyal to the college until he retired as a full professor. Entering politics, he was elected lieutenant-governor of his adopted state of Connecticut. A beloved icon, he was always called upon to speak. Interested in his students, he was always associated in our minds with memories of the college. 

Another was the chairman of the philosophy department. Tall, spare and forceful, with a sharp mind and wry humor, he made us respect the field and wish to understand it. In logic he brought home the fallacies, the argumentum ad hominem and the undistributed middle. In fact we went around campus looking for professors with undistributed middles. Another professor, chairman of the history department, had authored the first introduction to historical literature. Of middle height and a rapid walker, we called him "Nancy." His lectures opened up English history as in many ways our inheritance. He expected effort and got it, and in turn he worked patiently and rigorously with his honor students. The two economics professors who taught Principles and International Trade were tough customers. The business world was fascinating, but I decided it was not for me. 

Then there was an athletic coach. The college was small so he coached three minor sports--soccer, swimming and tennis. We played colleges like Amherst and Williams, but also Harvard, Yale, and Army. There are many memories. The coach was a pleasant martinet, he put the pressure on. Although he could not demonstrate the skills personally, he let the men experiment. One student learned to kick a soccer ball with the point of his toe. Called upon in a game to kick a penalty kick, which he had never done before, he was successful. 

The deus ex machina was Dean Nicholson. He had humor. We called him Nick. He was tough on those making heavy weather of their studies, but kindly if convinced you were serious about getting an education. Nick also taught Latin. His humor was delightful, on the classical side. All Gaul is quartered into three halves, and all that. The other half of the Latin department, composer of some of the college songs, was frequently seen walking along with his fingers at his sides playing in constant motion. Another fraternity brother, friendly and soft spoken, was one of the older scientists, a nationally known pioneer in the biological effects of space flight. He occasionally dropped into the house for a chat. 

All of these men were obviously having a great time teaching, but most of them were also productive scholars. We had plenty of models, and we were as close to them as we needed to be. For us, learning was job one. In the first two years, our task was to see enough of the curriculum, and to work hard enough on it, to be reasonably content with the decision on our major field of concentration. By the end of the sophomore year most of us had a good idea as to where we had a comparative advantage and continuing interest. We had penetrated far enough into the subject matter so that the questions kept coming. We knew our minds were expansible in the direction we had selected. Because we were using them. we began to understand the kinds of minds we had to work with. The faculty had the time and the patience to give, grade, and comment on, tests. These forced us to organize and integrate our knowledge as the best means of answering questions on the exams. Taking those exams was an integral part of the learning process.

But the context of Alma Mater was more than libraries, laboratories, and the classroom. There were the opportunities to become a person in one's own right. There was the test of the fraternities. No sororities in my day. This test could be flunked in several ways. One could avoid taking it by not joining, by remaining outside any group. One could join and discover, for whatever reason, that one was not happy with the group, and get out. One could stay in, but lose one's individuality and become a follower. To pass the test one joined a fraternity, stayed in through thick and thin, retained one's indi- viduality, worked to improve the organization, and accepted whatever leadership role was thrust upon one in the interests of the house, or the campus. 

Staying involved in a fraternity was a ticket for growth. Freshmen learned the campus ropes from upperclassmen. Advice on courses was available from brothers one knew well enough to accept or discount it. If freshmen were loud and not yet house broken, upperclassmen, out of consideration for the reputation of the house and their own sanity, would require neatness, cooperation, courtesy and consideration for others--valued ways of living in a group. I remember one time I gave a tongue lashing to a sophomore who was being particularly loud and obnoxious. Twenty years later at reunion time I returned to the house. He was there. He drew me aside and said, "Do you remember the time you gave me a bawling out." I said I did. He said, "That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I want to thank you for it." I don't remember what I said, but he had got the point. 

Upperclassmen, learned responsibility by having it thrust on them. Fraternity finances and maintenance, the economics of the dining room, the organizing of dances, entertaining the alumni--these tasks, and the abilities required to perform them, were learned in the houses. Similar situations may be encountered in dormitories.

Opportunities for participation and leadership on campus, always valuable in themselves, built loyalty to the institution. Such opportunities were more readily available for the average person in the smaller institutions. Participation on the newspaper or yearbook, in the glee club, chorus, or orchestra, on the student honor system committee, in Hillel or the Christian Association, and in student government contributed to institutional life. It also expanded the range of one's personal abilities, the circle of one's friendships, and one's tolerance of differences.

Intercollegiate athletics were an education in teamwork to achieve a goal larger than one's own. They stimulated the desire for personal improvement for the good of the team and the college. They also provided exposure to other institutions and other student bodies. If one has met performance tests on the playing fields as well as in the classroom and on campus, the personal confidence that success engenders carries over into later life. One remembers that this confidence was built while at Alma Mater. One is grateful, even sentimental about one's college days. The goal was mens sana in corpore sano.

This feeling of loyalty to Alma Mater was in earlier days often expressed in song. In addition to the many college football songs there are others like Cornell's 'Far Above Cayuga's Waters', Princeton's 'Old Nassau,' and Harvard's 'Fair Harvard' that reflect the spirit of affection for the institution. Here are two from my Alma Mater, Wesleyan, that date from the turn of the last century.

Twilight Song

 The Sunset glow has faded, The stars shine soft and fair

 And voice to voice in song responding, with music fills the air

 O dear old Alma Mater, to thee we fain would sing

 'Til with the name of Wesleyan the echoing walls shall ring

 (I'll spare you the other verses)

The Alma Mater was:

Come Raise the Song

Come raise the song for Wesleyana, till night and echo send it back

Come gather round the dear old banner, emblazoned with the red and black

We'll all be boys again together, life's short, then fill with joy its span

The home of joy is Alma Mater, then hail, all hail to Wesleyan

 (There were other verses, but the Chorus was sung slowly then hummed)

 O ivied walls, O storied halls, O shrine of long ago

 The altar fires our fathers lit shall still more brightly glow.

These songs reflect experience with a student's Alma Mater, and appreciation of what was received from it. Is this experience still generally available and still valued?

Today, I believe that Alma Maters, in the original sense, may be an endangered species. They are threatened from many sides by changes in at least five major factors:

1)In the first place, for this country's first three hundred years student bodies were relatively homogeneous. The composition of today's student bodies, especially those of the large universities is far more diverse. Not only do more students come from different political, racial, and religious traditions, they represent unfinished business from the home and the high schools--raw material waiting for a demagogue. Many come with a built-in sense of grievance, self-defensive, suspicious of adults, and without the experience of having had any deep interest in a specific field of study, unless it be computer methods. They are already problem, rather than knowledge, oriented. They are often more conscious of their differences from each other than their similarities, a tendency often reinforced by analytical sociologists. Their discussions are too often focused on who is right, rather than what is right. 

To put these students into appropriate subject matter classes, at appropriate levels of difficulty, is today in the larger universities, the task of the academic adviser. The process is no longer performed by members of the faculty. It is relegated to staff who do not teach, and have little opportunity of associating with faculty. Advising is a difficult task to do well. Few students have used their minds to the point of being able to review course preferences intelligently with their advisers. Few advisers have seen enough student minds in action to be able to identify types of minds when they encounter them. Only those students whose parents are college graduates will come with some inkling of the value of a college education for personal growth--the orientation and development of both the mind and the self. Advising may often be bureaucratically separate from the concerns of the faculty, and psychologically indifferent to the personal concerns of the student. As a result, the student feels at a loss for someone who can, and will, take the time to answer questions. Instead, the adviser may consider his or her function simply to steer the student into some academic pigeonhole, aimed at a profession or section of the business world, and then go on to the next problem.

To serve in loco parentis is no longer regarded as a faculty responsibility and rarely an adviser's. Dormitory counselors and deans of students can be helpful here, but they are not themselves teachers. Academically, the students are very much on their own, even though they may get feedback on faculty quality from friends . They often have pressure from home to get good grades in a new environment that is very different from high school. If the pressure is there, and the interest and preparation are not there, students who fear failure may try to manufacture good grades. The pressure must be taken off, and interest generated by parents, friends, and those who teach. Ultimate ly, students must assume reponsibility for getting their own educa tion. This transfer of responsibility takes place with the acquisition of interest. Interest is not taught, if the student does not bring it with him, it must be caught through contact with someone, hopefully a teacher.

2) Secondly, curriculums have been changing almost continually for the past seventy-five years. The major emphases are the respon sibility of the top administration--deans, provosts, vice-presidents and presidents. Revising the curriculum within those constraints has for years been the faculty's favorite indoor sport. It is not easy for faculty trained in the specialties of the graduate schools, and suffering from disciplinary myopia, to think cooperatively as educators, unless they know each other well. It is difficult for them to agree on fundamentals, i.e--what there is to be taught, and to which of these basic areas students should be exposed. Leadership is needed here. 

Agreement on curricular structure has been relatively constant for the past fifty years. We are all familiar with general education as distinct from distribution requirements, the major field of concentration, electives, and the departmental sequences. The problems that face us lie not so much with structure as with subject content. This is America and we are educating Americans, but we have a fractionated curriculum. The proportion on American history and institutions is in competition, not only with the rest of Western Civilization, but with increased offerings on China, Africa, and the Pacific rim. Furthermore, knowing and valuing, the two interrelated and interdependent mental functions, are receiving unequal attention. The calls for greater proficiency in the sciences and the quantitative language of mathematics are understandable. These undergird the technology of Western Society. We are increasingly becoming masters of the organization of matter. Not so for the organization of persons.

If we were to ask what is the language of the humanities and the valuational aspects of the social sciences, and who is teaching it, the answer would not be easy to come by. It is not a quantitative one. Few faculties recognize that the process of valuing and its age old inherited products such as the values order, rationality, life and the survival factors that make it possible, personal safety, national security, goodness, beauty, truth, honesty, which is truth internalized, love, loyalty, kindness, trust, peace, happiness, joy, justice, personal equality before the law, equality of opportunity, and wisdom. These, and their opposites the disvalues, are the vocabulary of this other mental function--valuing. Where do we find the systematic study of this humanistic vocabulary among the plethora of courses in the modern university? The relationships denoted by the concept of Alma Mater are not quantitative. They are valuational, and it is possible we are losing sight of them.

3) Thirdly, there have been changes in the attitudes of some professors towards their teaching responsibilities. For some, the career now comes ahead of anything else. Loyalty to the institution cannot be assumed. Teaching takes second place to research as the key to ad vancement of the institution as well as the individual. Time, assis tants, and for scientists, special equipment become major criteria for offering and accepting a position. Teaching pays one for concentrating on something else. Only those who are dedicated to teaching as a profession are willing to place its purposes and its satisfactions foremost. Only they are willing to engage in helping students reach their highest potential. A student's recognition, that he or she has had this personal guidance and encouragement along the way evokes loyalty and gratitude to Alma Mater. 

Teaching can be a two-way street. In publications teachers occasionally thank their students for asking key questions. The best teaching comes from the exchange of ideas between minds actively engaged in a field. Enthusiasm, consistent and intelligent effort are catching. To use a physics term, the group can go "critical." Students may learn by monkeying with things, but they also learn by aping their betters, if association is close enough. The personal role of the faculty as models is still vital. 

4) Fourth, there has been an evolution in the functions and the thinking of Presidents. They are less often educational leaders. They have other tasks. They rarely epitomize personally the character of an institution. The national scene has fewer educational statesmen.

Originally, in this country presidents were professionals, a clergyman and/or a scholar, who was the leader of the faculty in the days when institutions were small. They were accessible to students, and visible on campus at assemblies, chapels, and athletic contests as well as commencements and alumni or alumnae reunions. They were real people, part of the campus life, often with an official or personal nickname such as "prexy" or "Vic."

Today, with the increase in institutional size, presidents' active personal scholarship is less important for the position. If they publish, the subject is the role of the institution in meeting nation al needs. As an individual the president is more remote, less involved with the educational process itself. Time is spent on fund-raising, institutional management, community and national relations. Presidents have tended to disappear not only as direct personal influences on students, but also as indirect influences through curricular change. A bureaucracy of academic vice-presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairmen have replaced them. Rarely can any of these speak for the college or university as a whole. As a result, trustees draw chief executives from the ranks of national figures, business leaders, the retired military, politics, and the law. There are, however, some administrative functions for the President which, if performed well, enhance the institution's reputation, preserve student life intact, and retain student loyalty. Colleges and universities must continue to operate under pressure. Order is a fundamental value without which basic educational purposes are not achieved. Its maintenance depends upon the existence of trust between students and administration. That is difficult, if they do not know each other well enough to develop personal understanding, mutual respect, and loyalty to the institution. Where personal relations are involved, size is a handicap. The president can delegate, but he is still the ultimate problem solver. He must, for example, deal with multiculturalism, political correctness, and academic freedom.

5) Finally, administrations and alumni focus on the college or university as a cultural center. Musical events, art exhibits, lec tures, and seminars can provide students with opportunities to broaden their interests and add to their knowledge. That is fine, if students know about them and are encouraged by faculty to attend. Spectator sports in large stadiums are something else. Recruiting, publicity, competition are not part of the educational process, even though for alumni they may become a focus of school spirit. Faculty and students are lost in the crowds. The performance of the alumni on the national scene help build an institution's reputation. They also affect its recruiting power, and contribute generally to institutional pride. 

In summary, I would conclude that loyalty to an Alma Mater is generated by the following factors (elements)--

The friendly, cheerful, and challenging atmosphere of the place;

The availability of friendly advice and assistance from students and faculty members;

The presence of individuals to admire, respect, and like, whether in the student body, on the faculty, or in the administration;

The needs of the institution that were greater than one's own to which one had an opportunity to contribute;

Friendships formed through joint efforts in classwork, on the campus, in the fraternities and sororities, and on the playing fields;

The development of pride in personal growth and achievements;

Pride in the respect accorded one's Alma Mater by other individuals, especially the alumni or alumnae, and by other institutions.

Wherever these factors are found, loyalty to an Alma Mater will be there, and the concept will be alive. To the extent they are missing the concept will be in danger, or obsolete.


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Last updated: July 22, 1997