Can you sing the Alma Mater of your college or university from memory?
Can your students?
Watch these Cornell University student faces as they sing one of the oldest and most beautiful alma mater songs in the country:
Lest you think that only the Cornell Glee Club members know this song, consider these facts: students and alumni sing it at every athletic event, and the chimes on campus play it (along with the university evensong hymn) every day. If you went to Cornell, you will never forget this song, nor the physical experience of swaying arm-in-arm with the person next to you, rising up on the balls of your feet to help “lift the chorus.”
Almost every campus has an Alma Mater, but many songs have fallen on hard times, their words archaic, their intended audiences timid. The alumni at Homecoming may long to hear current students still singing their song, but often mascots on the field and the paraphernalia in the bookstore have replaced this tradition. Branding can be purchased; genuine love and loyalty are priceless.
The words “Alma Mater” mean “nourishing mother.” Back in 1600 when the image of a nursing mother, her breasts like fountains, appeared on books published by Cambridge University, the idea of education as a form of mother love appealed to both the classical and Christian origins of the university. Alma Mater draws her mythic strength from Greek and Roman goddesses and from later connections to Christian iconography of the Virgin Mary. From the early history of university education, Alma Mater provided a powerful image of lifelong sustenance.
Today, many of our students feel like motherless children in the struggle for meaning and purpose in their lives. Classes in vocation will go deeper, and be remembered longer, if they can attach to institutional traditions, helping students to connect their individual quests not only to others in the class, but to their whole institution: past, present, and future.
You might consider a personal campaign to revive the singing of the Alma Mater. A professor at Harvard used his math class as a forum for doing so. It wouldn’t be hard for your students to sing more lustily than his. Ask if any students have choral conducting experience (or ask an alumn who does to come lead the song), hand out copies of the music, study them, ask what vocational wisdom you can draw from these words, and then sing!
If the Alma Mater tradition seems beyond you, keep looking. Mission statements and core values statements, or any seemingly silly tradition on campus might yield some gold.
You will know you have re-ignited a tradition if students know the institutional song so well they can parody it or use it to welcome a visiting celebrity. Here’s my own dear Goshen College using the Alma Mater to welcome NBC’s Al Roker with a self-deprecating statement about Goshen weather — interrupted at the end by another seemingly unromantic feature of the campus, a freight train that sounds its raucous horn multiple times a day.
Does the Alma Mater of your campus contain any language useful to your understanding of vocation? What other institutional traditions and values have you drawn upon as resources when teaching about vocation?
Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay, “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2017).