For what cause, O man, chargest thou me thy daily complaint?

December 1990; pages 12-13; Volume 2, No 3

School Spirit Necessary for Social Change

Editors' note: The following letter was far too long to run in its entirety; space constraints forced us to cut it by about a half. We hope that in its present form the letter remains faithful to the intent of its author.

Dear Editors,

I think the letter below will be clearer if I make a few remarks orienting myself to the latest ostensible outburst of school spirit.

However pleased I was by watching a good football game and by UT's victory, I was nonplussed - and later saddened - by the celebration that ensued in the West Campus area. Like the article below criticizes, this celebration had little to do with football or with school spirit as such. If UT's victory against A&M had, as Henson and Philpott argue, served in itself to confirm the inveterate chauvinism of student aficionados - that is, their notion that UT is "superior" to A&M (where was the class analysis on this point anyhow?) - then there would have been no motive for the impotent rampaging afterwards.

The gloating ostentation - which is to say, the rage, despair, and forlornness- of the celebration following the game indicates not a surfeit of school spirit but rather its appalling lack. After all, those committed deeply to their school and who feel themselves vitally involves in its ventures must feel that the image of their school depends on their conduct too. Grace in victory and respect for adversaries are proper to school spirit; what followed the game on Saturday in West Campus, per contra, was sheer flagrance and apoplexy, a pathetic mania which for all its virulence was lacking entirely in content, and resembled nothing if not autism, albeit a very noisy autism.

In this vein, I am reminded particularly of a man I saw on Sunday morning at 2 am, twelve hours after the end of the game. He was high-fiving passing drivers, which by that time had dwindled to a steady trickle. To accuse that seriously lonely man - who is the type for every other participant in that disgraceful spectacle - of an excess of "spiritedness" seems ridiculous and wrong.

"In every era the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from conformism which is about to overcome it."

- Walter Benjamin

Henson and Philpott's jeremiad against school spirit is without question the worst thing they have written. As it appeared originally (in Polemicist Volume 1, Number 3) the piece was a fatuous, if otherwise harmless, exercise in polemical style in an immature and unproven publication; its reprinting in Images, however, was a revolting bit of preening by the editors/main contributors of a magazine which whether it wants to or not now represents the alternative press and as such the established left on campus. This reply cannot therefore in good conscience be withheld.

"The only apparent reason for the fact that a student movement does not already exist is a lack of school spirit."

Flaubert once warned us in the matter of criticizing fools to take care against becoming fools ourselves. In this matter of college sports and school spirit they have done one better than the fools. In a fetid piece of writing that rests more on a passing academic disdain for plebeian concerns than upon the reflection they (only) rhetorically invoke, they miss all the important points concerning collegiate sports and school spirit, while falling back on an insipid and contradictory existentialism which in misunderstanding Nietzsche unwittingly incorporates one of his most questionable political propositions: national chauvinisms are to be derided not, as Henson and Philpott claim, because they cause war, violence, and division, but rather because they are not "grand" enough in scope.

Henson and Philpott are unable to understand what is wrong with collegiate sports, spectatorship and school spirit, because their invective stems from the worst of both historical materialism and liberal idealism. By assuming the immediate identity of culture with ideological mystification ("school spirit amounts to a training ground for the molding of young patriots"), they dispense with the difficulty of evaluating cultural experience in the context of traditions and historical developments by declaring all tradition, in true radical fashion, anathema. Culture is rudely extruded from transformative struggle, leaving the subject without the means by which to judge its efforts just. In their zeal to avoid what they call the "abstraction" and "particularism" of mass culture, they end up affirming both more ferociously than ever at the level of the individual. The supposed magisterial autonomy of the individual, his refusal to acknowledge convention and to bow before any authority "outside" himself, turns out to be an abdication: his freedom from tradition and history is a freedom from moral responsibility. And his experience of the world which is supposed to be authentic because it is immediate, proves to be without depth utterly. What is so striking and momentous about the "raw feels" and "intensity" of picking up a stone, walking on warm sand ... in short, "life itself" as it is immediately given? These experiences seem concrete because of their obdurate "thisness," or, if you like, their intensity. But this "thisness" itself turns out to be abstract: every single thing is a "this," and all sensation is "intensity." What Henson and Philpott call "life itself" is therefore a full stop before an even cruder abstraction than the ones they castigate, which at least relate to determinate (i.e. content-bearing) human practices.

The upshot of Henson and Philpott's bungled philosophy, which is stripped of all historical consciousness, is that college athletics and school spirit in their present forms - which are deserving enough of criticism - are made indistinguishable from their respective concepts, which is to say, they are treated as if they had no concepts. Indeed, college athletics and school spirit cease to exist even as particulars for Henson and Philpott. There is nothing distinctive about them: athletics are merely a species of spectacle, in no way different from others, and school spirit is just another word for patriotism, which they assume to be reprehensible a priori, which is to say, ahistorically.

This demonization of particulars is unfortunate in spite of the fact that Henson and Philpott's portrait of them is correct - in every trivial way. Their formulations are unfortunate because the success of the very causes they propound depend precisely upon the confluence of "spirit" and "particularity." A transformation of university life seems impossible if students and faculty do not in body and spirit commit themselves to the fate of particular institutions and within those institutions remain loyal to those traditions and values they think that institution should embody and transmit. "The University," Tom Philpott Sr. advises, "is we who have the heart to make it what it ought to be." That people be integrally committed to particular places, practices and institutions, so far from being bad by definition, is indispensable for vibrant civil solidarity - as was made clear at the City Council meeting deciding the fate of the Barton Creek PUD. If there really already exists a community of students with actually shared needs and interests, as Henson and Philpott suggest there is, then the only apparent reason for the fact that a student movement does not already exist is a lack of school spirit, that is, a lack of student commitment and loyalty to shared and determinate traditions, institutions and values. But this already is to suggest that such a community does not exist.

"Every single thing is a 'this.'"

Further, it is enormously disheartening that Henson and Philpott, in their capacity as avowed advocates of liberation struggles, dismiss as cognitively bankrupt that area of culture in which Americans - and especially the working class - are most articulate and knowledgeable: sports and sports spectatorship. (Incidentally, their quite boorish supposition that there is something intrinsically disagreeable about football players is beneath even my easily enough provoked contempt.) The anti-intellectualism of the working class seems more than vindicated when academics assume the avidity of that class for things academics can neither appreciate nor understand to betoken coarseness of intellect. I, for one, am not willing to say that people are dupes; or that the working class (or for that matter students) knows nothing about its deep needs or about ideology.

The status of traditions and practices relevant to our liberation has yet to be settled. If one thing is sure, it is that leaving traditions solely in the hands of (so-called) conservative free-market apologists would be to assure their ossification and our own.

- Thomas King

The editors reply:

"[Wh]at followed the game on Saturday in West Campus ... was sheer flagrance and apoplexy, a pathetic mania which for all its virulence was lacking entirely in content, and resembled nothing if not autism, albeit a very noisy autism."

- Tom King

"I, for one, am not willing to say that people are dupes; or that the working class (or for that matter students) knows nothing about its deep needs or about ideology."

- Tom King

Those two statements taken together amount to a stunning contradiction. For that reason, they are emblematic of this pompous, ridiculous apology for school spirit. In the first instance, Tom strips the post-Aggie game west campus revelers of all agency, of all "content," and indeed of the ability to define their own emotions, which earlier he labels as "rage, despair, and forlornness." Then in the second statement, he hints that he would never do such a thing - he will not say people are dupes. Yet he can liken what goes on in West Campus after football games - what participants certainly consider school spirit - to "autism," which would be comical if it weren't so insulting to a group of people who suffer from a particular mental disorder.

Tom's lengthy philosophical digressions, heavily larded with jargon and quotations from Frankfurt school thinkers, seem to contradict this idea of the essentialized, "autistic" subject. It appears again in his outrageous statements on the "working class," who in Tom's view are "anti-intellectual" and are "most knowledgeable and articulate" about sports.

As for our polemic against school spirit, Tom never really attacks it so much as tries to define it away. He disassociates himself from post-game revelers - and presumably from frat boys who sing the Eyes of Texas at anti-frat-violence rallies, when they're not shouting racist, sexist, misogynist invective - by declaring that "Grace in victory and respect for adversaries are proper to school spirit, too." Therefore, people celebrating a football victory who don't meet Tom's guidelines for what's "proper" aren't really practicing school spirit; indeed, they aren't practicing anything, as their activities are "entirely lacking in content."

In this way, Tom avoids confronting the brunt of our critique, which is that school spirit tends to keep students satisfied at a time when the idea of the university has become debased almost beyond recognition; at a time when this university has become both a "certification mill" (to quote Tom in a part of his letter we cut), and a slush fund for the state's business interests.

Tom should also be lashed for writing that we "declare ... all tradition, in true radical fashion, anathema." We declare nothing of the sort, and our polemic contains no idea remotely close to this. We do, however, think that all traditions should be critically judged, in context, by each emerging generation. The ones that prove damaging should be revised or discarded. School spirit, in our view, has earned the latter fate.

- the editors