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Alma Mater Lyric to Be Changed?

Fred Lewis Pattee, original author of the Alma Mater and namesake of the Pattee Library.

The anthem we sing at football games and at other profound moments is staying as is for the time being, but Penn State grad and current doctoral candidate Brian Canada did bring up an interesting point about it. In an email to Roger Williams, Executive Director of the Alumni Association, he took issue with the line “For the future that we wait.”

That sounds awfully passive for a university that wants to position itself as a leader in research and innovation, doesn’t it?…If Penn State students are truly out to “make life better,” as one of our more recent taglines has suggested, then why would we sing about *waiting* for the future?

Considering the $2 billion fundraising campaign Penn State has just launched, it’s not a good thing, nor does it fit with the “Penn State mentality”, to have as one of its blazons a song that can be interpreted as encouraging that kind of inactivity.

As for the question of leaving the Alma Mater completely untouched as a sacred tradition, here’s a little history lesson. Fred Lewis Pattee wrote the song in 1901, and the lines you know today as “When we stood at childhood’s gate” and “Dear Old State” in the same stanza are actually changes from 1975. In order to reflect the equality of women in the student body, they were changed from the original lines,

When we stood at boyhood’s gate

Shapeless in the hands of fate,

Thou didst mold us, dear old State,

Into men, into men.

Precedent aside, Williams refers back to Pattee’s original six-stanza composition, not the current usage with four. Based on the entire song, he asserts that Pattee treats the University and its students as two separate entities—which makes sense, since “Dear Old State” takes on personified qualities. “I interpret Pattee as trying to convey is that we (the students) are not the actors (who in turn “create”). Rather it is alma mater who is the actor; it is she who shapes us,” he says.

Keeping that in mind, Williams thinks it better to not change Pattee’s original lyrics if it’s not absolutely necessary. Whereas the 1975 change reflected a fundamental change in viewpoint vis-à-vis women and their representation, this change would not reflect something as drastic or vital. Also, if we are think along the lines of the roles of student and alma mater that Pattee creates, it would fundamentally change the essence of the song. Especially since the song is written in an archaic, allegorical style, it’s much easier to hold it in that light.

Here’s another interesting quote from Williams’ retort:

Would I amend Francis Scott Key’s lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, edit Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or add a techno-rock cadenza to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to appease the modern frame of mind? Decidedly not.

Looks like Williams hasn’t seen this YouTube gem.


About the Author

Dan McCool

Dan is a senior and has been writing for Onward State since January 2010. Did you miss him? Nah, neither did we. He's returning after a semester abroad in England and will be serving as Arts Editor. Favorite things in life include references to The Big Lebowski.


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