Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: A significant change in the Middlebury alma mater

A few days ago I received an email invitation to join the greater Middlebury College community in singing our beloved Alma Mater as part of a crowd-sourced video for this year’s virtual graduation celebration. I followed the link to the recording instructions, which promptly reminded me of a small but significant change in the song’s lyrics that I first encountered at my sister’s Commencement last year. That day, when I raised my voice to sing the Alma Mater’s refrain:
 
Middlebury, Alma Mater,
Symbol of His strength and truth,
Symbol of His strength and truth!
 
the song leader instead sang,
 
Middlebury, Alma Mater,
Symbol of our strength and truth,
Symbol of our strength and truth!
 
The Commencement program assured us all that the word change was simply a suggested option, as valid as the traditional “His,” but one wonders how long the old wording will remain an option on Middlebury College’s campus. Changes are happening fast in Middlebury and show no signs of slowing; the Alma Mater word-shift is an almost-too-perfect microcosm of those changes.
How does one small word contain in it the paradigm shift of an entire academic community? The short answer is — by shifting focus. What was once “His” has now become “ours.” The College, in proposing this shift, is making an enormous claim with far-reaching ramifications.
At past Commencement exercises, Middlebury community members have paused to join their voices together in honoring the symbolic connection between their mother institution and “His strength and truth” — that is, God’s strength and God’s truth. To a Christian community, God as a concept is effortlessly rich in meaning — not necessarily so for the spiritually diverse community that Middlebury is today. However, a community member not brought up on the symbolism of God the Father can still derive meaning from the word God (or the pronoun pointing to it) by remembering Anselm’s definition:
“That than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Perhaps more accessibly, thinking of God simply as something beyond ourselves can bring the non-Christian singer into the vicinity of the songwriter’s intention.
The strength, then, that Middlebury our Alma Mater formerly symbolized belongs to something beyond ourselves. By immersing ourselves in the symbol of that strength for four years, we alumni accustomed ourselves to looking outside ourselves for strength, sometimes literally so. The Psalmist’s inscription on our own Mead Chapel, “The strength of the hills is His also,” reinforced the Alma Mater’s perspective by turning our gaze time and again onto Middlebury’s eastern and western horizons. Our “Nourishing Mother” was naturally rich in symbols for the strength that comes from beyond us.
Similarly, the academic institution within which we sought truth for four years once symbolized a truth that we do not own, that comes to us from elsewhere. This was a truth that derived its authority from its origins beyond human ingenuity, a fruit that we needed to stretch high to reach, and even then only held in our hands because the bough bent to meet us. Our college symbolized “His” truth, not ours; when we inevitably felt the friction between the two, the symbols around us guided us outside of ourselves.
That sort of guiding, and that sort of stretching, though, are painful. But our Alma Mater is changing, and the days in which a Middlebury education needs to be painful are dwindling. “His” is now becoming “ours”.
Note the new choice of pronoun. Our college is not suggesting we substitute “Her” or “Their” or “God’s” for the masculine “His”. This is not an issue of gender or feminism, though such issues are increasingly dominant in changing Middlebury. Nor are we encouraged to substitute the implicitly Christian “His” with a word pointing to our own conception of the transpersonal. “Gaia’s” could be appropriate given the new Middlebury’s emphasis on environmentalism but unfortunately does not fit the meter of the song. No, the suggested alternative is quite specific — “our.” The strength Middlebury symbolizes, and the truth Middlebury symbolizes, are our strength and our truth.
Middlebury, it seems, has grown up. No longer need we look elsewhere for strength; the symbols surrounding us, like the smokestack rising proudly from our biomass plant, remind us that we are self-sufficient, generating our own strength and sustainably so. The inscription looming over us as we climb the hill to Mead Chapel has become outdated — tacky, even. It is only a matter of time before the stonecutter is hired to update that campus symbol, too:
“The strength of the hills is ours also.” Middlebury is a modern institution brimming with self-confidence, empowering the next generation of change-makers to find the strength within themselves to work for the “common good.”
The new Middlebury, moreover, no longer pesters its students with problematic symbols of a truth that nobody can seem to pinpoint. All a student needs to do now is dutifully adhere to the truth laid out by Middlebury’s administrators, professors and upperclasspersons, taking care not to venture from the fold. No more ambiguity, no more secrets we have to work to discover, no more second-guessing ourselves when we think we may have stumbled on a clue from beyond — our Alma Mater symbolizes our truth.
It is here that the full force of the school song’s shift in focus hits — we’ve done it. We’ve found the truth. It is ours now, no longer His, and so the work of the academy, miraculously, is complete. And now begins a new work, the work of sharing our truth with the world. Let’s hope the world wants it, or we might have to share our strength, too.
Jack DeBois 
Middlebury College Class of 2015.5
Middlebury
 

Share this story:

More News
Op/Ed

Editorial: DeSantis, culture wars, and politics perpetuating grievance

It’s hard to ignore Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican firebrand and likely preside … (read more)

Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Too late for business as usual

Do you remember when Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” came out? I saw it in a crowd … (read more)

Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Bolivia trip offered thrilling sights

My family takes a trip together nearly every year. Once the trip is over we immediately lo … (read more)

Share this story: