In Defense of School Spirit

Working with traditional aged college students one almost immediately encounters FOMO—fear of missing out. It manifests in anxiety over daily matters of whether they are included in friends’ social media exploits all the way to big-picture fears about picking the “right” major to end up with the “right” career twenty years later. {For more on FOMO and vocation, see Daniel Meyers’ “Making Hard Choices.”}

Writing in the NetVUE volume At This Time and In This Place, William T. Cavanaugh has pointed out how this obsession with maximizing choice usually just works to obscure potential inputs and inspiration for determining one’s most satisfying life path. I want to suggest here a somewhat sneaky way to get students to focus on more immediate goals, helping them learn how to identify noble goals in the future and thereby chart a course for a meaningful life: start by cheering on your mascot and wearing school colors.

Benny the River Hawk (Susquehanna’s mascot) Source: University’s website.

Since many of us who are now academics were picked on by people who found it easy to cheer their team on to victory, this strategy might require a little more justification. To do that, it’s helpful to think about a critique of being too future-oriented from American philosopher John Dewey (specifically, in his 1922 Human Nature and Conduct, available as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg). Dewey reserved special criticism for the kind of philosophical speculation that insisted on establishing ultimate principles first, before dealing with the more pressing and accessible facts of immediate human existence. This, for Dewey, was to privilege ultimately uncertain or unknowable principles over the conditions that practically make life better or worse for real people—and which are largely within the power of humans to improve if they just spend the time and energy to do so.

In his moral philosophy, Dewey argued that the emphasis on ultimate, ideal ends actually got things backwards. People don’t do good things because they’re pursuing good ideals; they pursue good ideals because those ideals describe the path of doing good things. Thus, instead of anchoring human progress in ultimate ends fixed forever in advance, Dewey appealed to what he called “ends in view,” or visions of the good to which humans might aspire given the current state of affairs. Incidentally, progress made toward such “ends in view” also might be oriented to some ultimate, out-of-view end—indeed, Dewey seemed to think that was the case—but knowledge of that ultimate end is not required to get started on doing good work. Because ends-in-view are never taken to be fixed they always give way to the next end-in-view, which in turn is informed by the lessons learned in pursuing previous ends-in-view, in a great chain of idealistic pursuit toward greater human welfare and freedom (for more on Dewey’s moral philosophy, see Elizabeth Anderson’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry).

I want to suggest (though I don’t think Dewey would agree) that ends-in-view function as more accessible, more tangible stand-ins for the next step toward the ultimate end—whether or not that ultimate end is known or knowable. They’re kind of like a flag or an emblem—not the ideal itself, but a more immediate indicator and reminder of the ideal’s relevance for guiding action. Trouble starts when we forget this distinction and treat the emblem as an ideal end in itself, and this is part of the reason Dewey was so critical of the fixation on ideal ends.

As it turns out, this is awfully similar to how school mascots work. The goals and missions of colleges and universities are, almost by definition, noble and high-minded. Yet the institutions themselves are represented by cartoonish, anthropomorphic animals. It’s ultimately more important to commit oneself to the noble pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and service to others to create a more just society, but it’s also easier to cheer for an oversized plush bird of prey. That makes it easy to make the mistake that the mascot is itself the ideal, but if we keep in mind the ideals for which the mascot stands, pride in and commitment to one’s college or university can function as a powerful motivator to seek a more noble way of life.

Indeed, Hannah Schell has used Josiah Royce’s concept of loyalty to a noble cause as a productive way to think about vocation, and David Cunningham has argued that colleges and universities have their own sense of vocation (see their entries in At This Time and in This Place and Vocation across the Academy, respectively). Combining these two insights, we can conclude that if students get even a vague sense of their institution’s mission as something noble and good, and if they find it relatively easy to identify as its members and parties to its cause, then promoting “school spirit” is a good way to get them started on the business of striving toward noble causes in general. This can be as simple as visibly participating in your institution’s traditions (like singing the alma mater together with students, as Shirley Showalter has suggested) to something as involved as making student-alumni interactions a regular part of courses.

Cornell University’s Glee Club singing their Alma Mater

There are other, more crass reasons to promote school spirit as well. Students who are more engaged with campus life will have more opportunities to develop leadership skills and professional connections that may help them succeed after college. Such students who love their school are more likely to become loyal alumni donors, and who might later help students with professional networking. The more loyal and affectionate an institution’s students and alumni, the more attractive it will be to prospective students and potential donors. There are real, tangible benefits to proudly wearing your school colors.

Of course, this all assumes that we avoid the dangers of tribalism, vicious competition, and in-group favoritism that often haunt the very idea of “school spirit” within campus culture. Fostering a more earnest sense of ownership and stewardship of the ideals of an institution across all its various stakeholders can work to head off any such excesses and make the entire enterprise more meaningful for everyone involved. Especially for those of us at small liberal arts colleges, which never were and never will be like the elite research universities we attended for graduate school, there is a lot to be said for loving our homes and the work in front of us and teaching our students to do the same.

Matthew Duperon is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Susquehanna University. He studies and teaches comparative religious ethics, specializing in early Chinese religious thought and American Pragmatism. Matthew is a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Matthew Duperon, click here.

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