I graduated from Warner Robins High School (Go Demons!). Our alma mater probably looked a lot like your alma mater:
 On the city’s eastern border,
Led by God’s great hand,
Proudly stands our alma mater,
Dearest in the land.
We will ever sing thee praises,
Striving without fail.
Here’s to thee, our alma mater–
Robins High all hail!

 I’ve always felt that Warner Robins High School, the institution of learning where I first encountered Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, and polynomials, deserved a better alma mater–though I suspect it’s close to the median for this sort of thing. Literary standards for alma maters are pretty low.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to have a close look at the alma maters from two of my alma maters (Warner Robins High School and Furman University), with an eye to some principles that apply well beyond the admittedly specialized field of alma mater-writing.

In the Warner Robins High School alma mater quoted above, there is only one objective fact, one concrete specific: On the city’s eastern border. And as it turns out, this objective fact is false: Warner Robins High School doesn’t actually sit on the city’s eastern border. But perhaps the borders have moved since the song was written, so I won’t cavil. Suffice it to say that the school sits pretty far east within the borders of Warner Robins, Georgia. But of all the concrete particulars that might elicit fond memories and school spirit, it seems odd that the school’s relatively eastward position is the only one to make it into the song. I’m disappointed, for instance, that there is no mention of teaching or learning or athletic excellence.

That opening prepositional phrase is immediately followed by the participial phrase, Led by God’s great hand. Here’s hoping that this appeal to divine sanction cancels out the fact that our sports teams were called the Demons. For our purposes, however, I’m more concerned with the grammar, which is a tad ambiguous. What, exactly, does the phrase led by God’s great handmodify? Clearly the school is being led or has been led by God’s great hand. But as we learn in the next line, the school also stands proudly. That image of standing (that is, being stationary) doesn’t work so well with the image of being led (which suggests motion). Probably because the phrase Led by God’s great hand comes immediately after the phrase On the city’s eastern border, I always had a vague sense that God’s great hand had led Warner Robins High School to the spot on the city’s eastern border where it now proudly stands. I’m pretty sure that’s not what alma mater-writer was going for, but those first few lines always conjured for me something along the lines of the Mormons first arriving in Salt Lake City.

Enter Warner Robins School Superintendent and School Board, preceded by Priest.

PRIEST

This is the spot. Here shall ye build Warner Robins High School.
 

SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT

Right here? On the city’s eastern border? You sure we shouldn’t build closer to the middle of town?
 

PRIEST

Listen, pal, I don’t tell you how to do your job.

Lines 3 and 4 contain the only other two descriptors that are applied to Warner Robins High School in this alma mater: proudly and dearest. Note that both of these descriptors contain only emotional content; they make no reference to anything sensory or concrete or specific. Even more significantly, neither of these emotional descriptors actually applies to the school, which doesn’t have emotions. Rather, they refer to emotions that people feel about the school. If the school proudly stands, it’s because people feel pride in it. It’s no crime to transfer “I feel pride in my school” to “my school stands proudly,” but I wouldn’t do it, because it is vague and imprecise and does nothing to anchor us in the reality that is Warner Robins High School, a real place for which I actually do have fond memories and affection.

I’m more bothered by that phrase Dearest in the land, and here’s why: It sounds like praise, but it doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s not hard to imagine the graduates of another high school asserting that theirs is the dearest in the land, and one would be hard-pressed to prove them wrong. It would be more to the point to say, “My high school is dearer to me than any other high school.” That’s not a provable statement, but at least it is incontrovertible. It wouldn’t, however, make a great alma mater line. In a minute we’ll see how the writer of Furman University’s alma mater handled this problem.

On to the next lines: We will ever sing thee praises/ Striving without fail. This pledge to praise one’s school perpetually is pretty standard stuff in alma maters (and I, for one, have kept my pledge–Go Demons!). But it would be a help if the alma mater could somehow stir up feelings of pride and affection, or perhaps present even one image that actually reminds me of Warner Robins High School and my happy hears there, rather than simply declaring or asserting that this proudly-standing school is the dearest in the land. 

Evoking emotion is a perfectly legitimate endeavor for a writer. But when the evocation of emotion is a stand-alone project with no clear reference to the world in which we actually live, the effect is often counter-productive. When you write directly about emotion and/or declare to the reader what emotion you expect him to feel, you almost never succeed in evoking the desired emotion. The language of alma maters purports to be the language of exaltation (standing proudly, dearest in the land, God’s great hand), but often is just the language of inflation. It sounds good, but there’s no “there” there.

When you declare to me that a thing is praiseworthy and tell me to praise it, but you don’t show me what’s praiseworthy about it, you make me wonder whether it is praiseworthy at all. Take heed, writers of alma maters, love letters, Mother’s Day notes, and praise and worship songs.

From Warner Robins High School I went to Furman University, where we sang this alma mater:

A mountain city is her home, 
A mountain river laves her feet.
But from far coasts her children come
To crown her brow with flowers sweet.
And ‘neath her shade they rest secure
And drink from wisdom’s fountain pure,
Then rally, sons and daughters true
‘Round our dear Alma Mater.

This alma mater relies on hyperbole and overly exalted language (what alma mater doesn’t?), but I want to look at a few things that distinguish this lyric from the usual run of alma maters. Furman’s alma mater manages to hit all the conventions and tropes, but in a slightly fresher way.

Like the Warner Robins High School alma mater, this one opens with a statement of geographical fact: A mountain city is her home/ A mountain river laves her feet. This, of course, is more than mere geographical fact. It conjures up happy memories of hills and streams and makes Furman sound like the kind of place you might like to visit. By the time I got to Furman, the school had moved out of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, and well away from the Reedy River that once laved its feet, but that is hardly the fault of the alma mater writer: these opening images at least call up the general setting of the Furman I knew, if not the precise setting.

It is incumbent on the alma mater-writer to assert that the institution in question is dear to its students and alumni. We’ve already considered the descriptor Dearest in the land. The Furman alma materist skinned that cat in a different way: But from far coasts her children come/ To crown her brow with flowers sweet. While that kind of hyperbole isn’t to my taste, I’ll say this for those two lines: they give us something to look at, and they show that Furman is dear to her children without using any directly emotional language and without making unsupportable claims. They allow the reader or hearer to arrive at the appropriate judgment on her own: “Furman must be dear to her children if they come from far coasts to crown her brow with flowers sweet.”

Finally I just want to point out that the Furman alma mater speaks to the school’s purpose. Her children are resting in her shade and drinking from the fountain of wisdom. By the time we sons and daughters are called upon to rally around our Alma Mater in the last couple of lines, we have been provided with some good reasons to do so.

The Furman alma mater works like a hymn, whereas the Warner Robins High School alma mater works like an especially ineffectual praise chorus.

From Furman University I went to Vanderbilt University, but I don’t remember one thing about the Vanderbilt alma mater. When you’re a PhD candidate, you don’t show your school spirit by singing, but by marking Freshman English papers and wondering when the powers-that-be will realize their mistake and kick you out of the program for a semi-literate fraud.