Tag Archives: idealism

Wandering Around Historic Houston Hall

So I’ve been wandering around historic houston hall for the past hour and a half as my dear twin has been “saying goodbye” to her fiance in the aforementioned span of time. And they are still saying goodbye. I’m sitting by the two computers in the center of Houston Hall. LOST is playing loudly in the Bistro, as well as some off-color modern commercials. I’m reading the old plaques. They make me…reflect.

The nineteenth century was a special time. Of course, it produced millions of idealistic young men willing to get shot to death in rotting trenches and barbed wire for the sake of some romantic nationalist myths. That world ended 1914-1918. But it was a poignant world.

Apparently, men, college BOYS (there were very few women at Penn in those days), college boys, were erecting plaques like the following (that I am staring at at this moment)

“In memory of JOHN BORLAND THAYER class of 1882 ‘College. Scholar. Athlete. Publicist. Vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad who died April 15th 1912 in the wreck of the steamship “Titanic” a martyr to his sense of duty he will ever live in our hearts as one who gave his life that others might be saved. This Tablet is erected by his classmates.

It probably dates from 1912 or 1913. It’s a huge bronze plaque, I’d say four feet wide and three feet tall. There’s a palm front and a big seal of the university of Penn on it, “Literae Sine Moribus Vanae” (learning without mores/morals is emptiness/vanity) on a ribbon encircling seven books, “Grammatica, Rhetorica, Logica, Mathematica, Philosophia, Astronomia, Theologia” in ascending order, with “Theologia” at the top.

It was a different world. I wonder if anyone would get such a plaque today. No, today you get it for making a billion dollars and donating half of it to Penn. College boys at Penn’s highest aspiration is not longer to be a warm body that drowns so that another warm body can sit on the lifeboat. (you drown as one less warm body, something any brainless 17 year old highschool dropout could’ve done–no, we will succeed, use our great skills, make a really big difference…)

But they weren’t so savvy and utilitarian then as we are now.

Here’s another example of sentimentalism, engraved on the plaques under the big bell in Houston near bodek lounge:

PLEDGE OF LOYALTY
UPON THIS OLD BELL I PLEDGE MY ALLEGIANCE TO THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA
AND I PLEDGE TO DEVOTE MY LOYALTY TO ITS BEST INTERESTS AT ALL TIMES

PRAYER OF STRENGTH
WE, WHO HAVE SOLEMNLY PLEDGED OUR LOYALTY TO THE UNIVERSITY
OF PENNSYLVANIA, PRAY ALMIGHTY GOD FOR STRENGTH TO PERFORM FAITHFULLY THE OBLIGATIONS WE HAVE ASSUMED.

It’s written in a large capital letters, with “U”s written as “V”s. Trying to mimic the monument engravings of the ancient Romans, I guess. As I read this, I kept searching for some tongue in cheek melodrama, some ‘wink wink, dear old penn’ flippancy, but no, it was dead serious, praying to “Almighty God”, and worded in the style of the outdated books of common prayer in all their old Anglican stuffiness.

And here’s this to notch up the sentimentality, on the other side of the bell is another plaque:

1872-1914
FOR FORTY TWO YEARS
THIS BELL RANG OUT THE HOURS
FOR PENNSYLVANIAN MEN
THE CLOCK TOWER OF COLLEGE HALL HAVING BEEN REMOVED
THE BELL IS PLACED HERE IN THE HEART OF THE UNIVERSITY
AS A SYMBOL OF CONSTANCY AND LOYALTY

The sentiment of it, nostalgia for the bell, the “heart” of the university, “constancy” “loyalty…

Those college boys were unabashedly romantic, sentimentally loyal to “sense of duty”, or to their university, to their national glory–naively, irrationally so. “LOYALTY” almost seemed a word to roll of the tongue, tasting it with relish, as Penn freshman now relish the f-word.

It was a different world. Before the poison gas, the barbed wire no man’s land, the trenches, world war one (Gas boys gas…pro patria mori)…and also the sexual revolution, the divorce boom (the exchange of lifelong oaths for easily terminated contracts), etc. etc.

No, the world is sophisticated now. I’ve walked past a few dozen pink signs today, boldly proclaiming facts about the biological details of copulation, genital mutilation, the neo-freudian explanation for lipstick, and bodily functions.

The world is so sophisticated now. We’re not so naive anymore.

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