College and university alma maters are of two kinds: the singable and the unsingable. The unsingable are of two kinds, the manifestly unsingable, and the subtly unsingable. This last category, more numerous than you might imagine, is where my interest lies.
Much is to be said for the singable. Those of us who spend time at lots of different commencements can be forgiven that sense of relief, when, just before the recessional, the orchestra strikes up that familiar tune ─ dah, da-dah, dear alma mater; dah, da-dah, da-dah! The only puzzle remaining is to see how the institution’s name has been fitted into the well-known tune and meter. We have a look at the words, helpfully printed in the program, and wail away with lusty confidence.
The manifestly unsingable alma maters also offer confidence, albeit of a negative sort. You know right off you can’t sing them. My own dear alma mater’s alma mater, whose opening phrase titles this piece, defies the casual effort to bawl it forth, and remains difficult ─ not to say, treacherous ─ terrain after years of familiarity. It would take a Ph.D. in music theory to describe its rhythmic jumps, pauses, and lurches, as it shifts from urgent hurry to dramatic drag, or its frustration of every melodic expectation, as it pops up or down on unexpected, haunting notes, yielding the dirge-like, minor tonality of dour, Calvinist lamentations. In addition to which, there’s an awful pun as that first line continues: “Kind the fate that links our lives with thee!” Links? The College’s athletic mascot is the Lynx. Heavens!
But the subtly unsingable is a fascinating collection! Maybe you haven’t heard the tune before, but as the orchestra runs through it, it seems plain enough, a tune you can manage. It’s like meeting a stranger and thinking that though he doesn’t look like any prior acquaintance, he looks plausibly like someone you might know. But in the world of subtle unsingability, this assurance is deceptive. Tucked away in there somewhere ─ you must have missed it! ─ is an unexpected whole note where you’ve sung a half-note and moved on. Or there’s a jazzy, syncopated stretch to stumble through, or a spot where everyone stops and shouts “Hail!” before crooning on. Or the third verse is always whispered ─ didn’t you know that? The subtly unsingable is a land of infinite diversity. These alma maters are like the stairs built into old houses in Scotland: Their uneven steps are there on purpose, to trip the stranger and betray his presence.
The moral of the story is this. Sometimes we know what’s up. Sometimes we know we don’t know. But sometimes we are apt to think we know, when we don’t get it, at all. It takes only a little reflection to see that the great abstraction, “American higher education,” does more to conceal difference than to gather affinity. But even the finer grained descriptions, like “small liberal arts college,” “flagship state university,” “Ivy,” and so on, still conceal differences that may not be, really, at all subtle. What people have undertaken to do at this university or that college needs careful study on its own terms: Our institutions may well be a lot more like artistic productions than they are like standardized industrial products. That may be worth remembering, in this age possessed with measuring things and ticking off little boxes. What first seems unsingable may just be a distinctiveness worth treasuring.