There stands at Columbia University in New York a bronze statue of a seated woman, arms outstretched, welcoming all who wish to study. She balances a great book on her lap. She holds a scepter or mace. And she is crowned with a laurel wreath.
A plaque on the base names her. She is “Alma Mater,” or “Nurturing Mother.” And those she welcomes are the ones to be nourished, the “Alumni.”
In an age when colleges and universities no longer see their work in light of this metaphor, it is a remarkable thing that the statue has not yet been assaulted or removed. Perhaps, somewhere in the hearts of those who teach and study at Columbia, there remains a notion that the work of nourishing souls, hearts, and minds is somehow important.
In my years of study, I was enrolled in and lectured at various colleges and universities. Each one of them was a “bubble” in which we, separated from the world around us, studied works and ideas often with little continuity.
Many evenings, to pay my bills, I waited tables, washed floors, and cleaned toilets alongside people who seemed a great deal more genuine than those in my classes. Indeed, my evening colleagues often wanted little to do with the professors and students who inhabited those bubbles. In time, I came to understand this divide.
In these schools the academic work had become aimless. A job had become the only perceivable end of our studies. Those with whom I worked in the evening suspected that there must be more to life than a job. There must be more to academic work than what they had observed in the bubbles.
Study is intended to nourish a soul.
You and I happily inhabit a college – its own sort of bubble – which retains a belief that we professors corporately serve as an Alma Mater to our alumni. We strive alongside women and men who work at tasks of equal importance in the care and nurture of students. As I talk to my colleagues I am consistently encouraged by the sense of purpose we share. Never perfect, and often full of bluster, there remains a common end to our efforts. We are here to nourish souls. We are here to nurture each alumnus in preparation for the living of a good life.
Here, we have preserved something of that which schools were intended to be.
Kenneth Calvert is a professor of history at Hillsdale College.