Somewhere, there may be an alma mater with stirring music and world-class lyrics. If it exists, I’ve never heard it. My college’s alma mater begins:
Beneath New Jersey’s skies of blue,
In Montclair’s mountain town,
There stands our college, tried and true,
And growing in renown.
At least it rhymes.
This year, Harvard University has decided to revamp its alma mater, “Fair Harvard.”
The anthem was composed about 1830 by alumnus Samuel Gilman, Class of 1811. The opener of “Fair Harvard” reads:
Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee throng,
And with blessings surrender thee o’er
By these Festival-rites, from the Age that is past,
To the Age that is waiting before.
I have no idea what these lyrics mean, but they make my alma mater sound damn-near Shakespearean.
The wretched verse is not what has raised eyebrows at Harvard. Members of the university’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging have misgivings about the last two lines of the song:
Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love,
Till the stock of the Puritans die.
The head of the task force, Danielle Allen, a professor of government, sees her mission as ensuring that all Harvard’s symbols, songs, and even its motto are appropriate to every member of the university’s student body, faculty, and staff, “regardless of background, identity, religious affiliation or viewpoint.”
That’s a tall order, and it could be a tricky one to fulfill, but let’s go with it for the time being.
By the way, I owe a tip of the hat to Gilbert T. Sewall, whose news story, “‘Fair Harvard’: A Modest Proposal,” appeared in these pages a day or two ago and first alerted me to this latest flare-up of Ivy League looniness. So I started digging around for recent updates to the story.
Now, about those offending lines in the Harvard alma mater: check any culture, creed, or viewpoint, and I’ll bet you next month’s mortgage payment that they will all agree that being a herald of Light and a bearer of Love are good things. It’s the reference to the stock of the Puritans that Professor Allen and her fellow committee persons find vexing.
In an interview with the BBC, Prof. Allen explained that the lyric suggests that “the commitment to truth, and to being a bearer of its light, is the special province of those of Puritan stock. This is false.” If that’s what the lyric says, then yeah, Allen has a point — the Puritans and their descendants do not have a monopoly on truth and light. But Prof. Allen’s reading is just plain wrong. The song urges every Harvard student, every Harvard alum, to be “a herald of Truth and a bearer of Light.” All of them. Every single one. I mean, how much more inclusive can you get than that?
As for the closing line, “Till the stock of the Puritans die,” that’s just fancy poet-speak for “forever.” Call any professional genealogical society in Massachusetts and you’ll discover that “the stock of the Puritans” is not going anywhere, and their descendants range from Marilyn Monroe to Cokie Roberts to Richard Gere to the Bush family political dynasty. There is no escaping that “the stock of the Puritans” is omnipresent. There’s no getting away from them. Anymore than Harvard can escape the fact that Puritans founded their school. If that teensy historical detail makes some people’s skin crawl, so be it, but it’s still true. You’d think by now that educated people would know trying to edit history is always doomed to failure and makes the editors look pathetic and silly.
By the way, the BBC goes on to report that the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging (I love that name!) is also open to “an alternative tune or style for the song, with the suggestion of a hip-hop version.” Good idea. Hip-hop will never go out fashion, and will be as timeless as that immortal classic, “Com’on Baby, Let’s Do the Twist.”
Our friend, Gilbert Sewall, wonders if the task force is kicking around such ideas as, “Let’s give the Puritans some hip-hop or emo glam? Maybe queer up Cotton Mather?”
As is true of all cases of lefty academic buffoonery, the alma mater rewrite makes Harvard an easy target for critics. Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK. His book, What’s Happened to the University? takes on campuses where certain speakers are banned, distraught students can retreat to safe spaces, and everyone appears to be on high-alert for the least hint of a micro-aggression. Prof. Furedi has denounced the stated goals of Prof. Allen’s committee as “morally disoriented.” It’s good phrase, but it may be a little over the top. I’m not sure tinkering with a song’s lyrics is a moral issue.
So, what are the kids saying on campus? The campus newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, published a news story by staff writer Caroline S. Englemayer entitled, “‘Fair Harvard’ Lyric Change Fails to Strike Chord with Students.” In a random sampling of about a dozen students, Engelmayer found that the committee’s distress over the alma mater hasn’t registered on student radar. “People don’t really know about it,” said Anna Mazur, Class of 2020. Aren G. Rendell, Class of 2019, said he “did not know this was happening,” and went on to say, “I’m neither for nor against it at this point.” Alex Z. Zhang, Class of 2020, admitted he was “not that aware of the history” of the song. He added, “I think adhering too strongly to ideas of symbolism and adhering too strongly to tradition is harmful.”
Engelmayer pointed out that the song is rarely performed on campus, limited almost exclusively to such ceremonial occasions as the Freshman Convocation and Commencement. “‘Fair Harvard,’” she writes, “is not a major part of student life at the College.”
According to Engelmayer, until September 2017, the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging will accept suggested revisions to “Fair Harvard” as part of what Prof. Allen characterized as the “listening and discovery” phase of its rewrite program. The top contenders will be announced in Spring 2018. Mr. Sewall has a submission that I think fits the bill:
Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love,
Once the stock of the Puritans die.
As for Harvard’s motto, it’s safe. Prof Allen told the BBC that “Veritas,” Latin for truth, “speaks to and on behalf of all members of our community.” Good to know.