Against School Spirit

A three-tiered attack on jingoism in the young

Editor's note: In a fit of nihilistic rage last spring, Scott Henson and Tom Philpott lashed out at school spirit, demanding the harsh and unequivocal punishment of those who most fiercely promote it. The article, published in The Daily Texan, only caused confusion. Here is their attempt at a more rational, reflective case against school spirit and the jingoists who revel in it.

By Scott Henson and Tom Philpott
December 1989; pages 9, 11; Volume 1, No. 3

Jingoism in the Young

In the latter stages of any given UT football season, thousands of students are either bursting with jubilance or simmering with rage, all over the actions of 40 young men they will never know and probably wouldn't like if they met. All that emotion, all that energy, all that anger - and so pointless a cause. We shouldn't have to explain that whether the Longhorns win or lose is a matter of profound indifference; that should be obvious even to the most brainwashed. But judging from the response to our spring column, we must still prove that school spirit isn't only ineffectual, but it's also downright damaging, both to individual students and to the school itself. What follows is a moral, philosophical and practical basis for an anti-school spirit sensibility, one we hope will spread - and finally overwhelm the insidious virus that is school spirit.

School spirit and patriotism

In our earlier attack, we proclaimed that school spirit "can only lead to patriotism." We must now prove the link between the two, and also show that patriotism is indeed worthy of scorn.

For the school-spirit jingoist, a college football team embodies the school it represents. When the Longhorns beat, say, the Oklahoma Sooners, the classic jingoist will declare, "We beat Oklahoma!" rather than "We beat the Sooners!" That's because in the mind of the school-spiriteer, nothing distinguishes the 40 men Oklahoma puts on the field from the school whose colors they wear. The team simply is the school. The joy derived from the victory stems not so much from UT's players outscoring OU's, but mainly from the one school dominating the other. That, of course, defies reason. UT the university didn't beat OU the university; it simply bought a better football team this year.

This situation is directly analogous, and in fact a precursor, to the relationship of people to their country under the rubric of patriotism. In any given conflict, the patriot and the school spiriteer will support "our side," simply because it's "our side." That's how U.S. Green Berets justify their positions as advisors to death squads and torturers in El Salvador. The same philosophy allows UT alumnae and students to justify South Africa investments and UT's expansion into the Blacklands neighborhood. President Cunningham even invokes patriotism to rationalize spending education money to buy capital for large defense contractors - he says it's "public policy," and therefore it's desirable. Morality bends far too easily and too often to the dictates of nationalism, and school spirit amounts to a training group for the molding of young patriots.

Patriotism divides people and inspires war. People who contest this need only examine Europe - its history has been ravaged, and hundreds of millions of its citizens killed, by the nationalist impulse. Writing in the late 19th-Century Germany, Nietzsche complained that in his country, "this most anti-cultural sickness and unreason there is, nationalism, this névrose nationale with which Europe is sick, this perpetuation of European particularism, of petty politics: they have deprived Europe of its meaning, of its reason - they have driven it into a dead-end street."

And whether it's pre-war Europe or business as usual, this particularism, this petty politics, can only divide, sicken and degrade its patrons. Just as patriotism created false divisions among Europeans, school spirit takes students, a class of people with common interests and needs, and divides them into rival tribes intent on "beating" each other. With its economic unification, European nations will ally fundamentally in 1992. If students in the Southwest Conference would express their anger and emotion to challenge the academic establishment - or, for that matter, U.S. funding of Salvadoran death squads - with the same amount of time and enthusiasm they devote to school spirit, imagine the potential for change.

School spirit and the lure of the spectacle

The modern American university is structured to defend class prerogatives and maintain the status quo. The governor of Texas routinely packs the UT-System Board of Regents with oil, banking and real-estate barons. That's no coincidence. Polemicist has outlined how these barons, with the support of the Legislature and university administrators, divert millions in education money to subsidize large corporations, all in the interest of "economic development." In fact, promoting "economic development" has become widely accepted as a legitimate purpose of universities, even to the detriment of student's interests.

These monied interests are among the most jingoistic in supporting school spirit. Wealthy groups of Texans - affectionately known as "alumnae" - routinely conspire illegally to buy their schools the best available sports talent. Gov. Bill Clements, for instance, while sitting on SMU's equivalent of the UT System Board of Regents, presided over just such an effort. Large corporations and a few rich Texans combined resources to buy the University of Texas a $1 million scoreboard for its football stadium - at a time when undergraduates are sitting like cattle in huge auditoriums, watching their tuition skyrocket.

These same champions of school spirit greatly benefit from the attention given to the spectacle of college sports and jingoism. As much attention the Board of Regents can divert to UT football and away from its South Africa investments, the better. A winning basketball team diverts students' attention away from the astronomical numbers in their classes, cuts in library hours and dramatic and unwarranted tuition hikes. After all, one million dollars for a new scoreboard is a helluva lot cheaper than $18 million to bring UT's student-teacher ratio up to par. Especially when the Texas power elite could use that money to pay for new capital for the defense contractors in the Sematech consortium.

What that elite buys with its school-spirit investments is a culture of jingoism among students. When the alumnae have succeeded in buying a good football team for UT, for example, 80,000 people pack Memorial Stadium (and hundreds of thousands more watch on TV), reacting to events on the field with howls of execration or screams of joy, whatever the case may be. Student emotion is thus channeled into the harmless cause of celebrating and lamenting the actions of a few dozen people - and out of the subversive cause of defining and fighting for their own interests as students and people.

School spirit: a philosophical attack

Nietzsche's polemic against patriotism rested on the idea that individuals shouldn't expend their enthusiasm on an abstraction - the glory of their nation or school, for example - but rather on expressing themselves. The thousands who pack Memorial Stadium on football Saturdays aren't experiencing the physical and emotional sensations of playing football - the running, the thrill of scoring a touchdown, the disappointment of missing a tackle. Instead, they're watching other people experience those sensations. They conform to Nietzsche's horrific conception of the "last men," posited in his brilliant parable Thus Spoke Zarathustra. "Last men" hold comfort and security as life's highest ideals. They enjoy minor, passive pleasures that don't challenge them or require creativity - watching football, for example. They happily submit to authority because it's easier that way.

As an alternative, Nietzsche exhorted us to embrace "chaos," to "live dangerously" - in short, to create our own values and live by them. This would require that we reject school spirit, which demands that its adherents accept tradition simply for tradition's sake.

But school spiriteers insist on placing the responsibility for their immediate happiness on abstractions, on circumstances beyond their control. The French author Albert Camus called this "philosophical suicide." Inspired by Nietzsche, he argued that people should concentrate their energies on experiencing what's around them: the warmth of the sand and stones on the beach; the pain in leaving or being left by a lover; the joy in creating; in short, the things in life that "intensify the passion of living." But to rely on external circumstances to achieve this - the success or failure of the football team or the nation's army, the unprovable existence of a god, or the promised creation of a "classless society of the future" after a Marxist revolution - is to "live not for life itself but rather for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it meaning, and betray it." Camus denounced this as "appealing" to some force from outside of the self, a habit which degrades the present for the sake of an unknowable future.

School spiriteers do this when they rely on a UT quarterback's actions for the immediate happiness, or when they declare with confidence that if the 'Horns would just "go Cotton," everything would be great.

In our earlier polemic, we called for the public humiliation and lashing of UT's chief school-spirit jingoist, the chair of the Ex-students' Association's Spirit and Traditions Board. We will not go so far this time. We do, however, wish that such people would reconsider their actions and repent for their transgressions. What they do is destructive, since it lulls students into accepting illegitimate authority when they should be challenging it.

At a time when the administration, the Board of Regents, and the Legislature are conspiring to exchange quality of education in the present for the abstract notion of "economic development" and "national security," in the future, students have no time to cheer.