Claremont Insider: Cootie Approach

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cootie Approach

[ A few weeks ago--November 23--we received this letter. There has been a flurry of conversation about the Pomona Alma Mater in recent days (see this link, especially Comment 1 by Professor Kim Bruce, and Comment 4, by Pomona alumna Rosemary Choate). Probably the renewed interest is because the committee referred to below has completed its report, will discuss it with President Oxtoby by Wednesday, and President Oxtoby will meet with the Trustees on Thursday. The emphases, links, and a few editorial style changes that in no way affect the content are ours]

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[address redacted]

October 17, 2008

Kim B. Bruce, Ph.D. and Jeanne Buckley ‘65
Co-Chairs, Committee on College Songs
Pomona College
Claremont, California 91711

Re: Pomona College: Thought Promoting Academy or Thought Police Academy

Dear Co-Chairs:

Your committee has been commissioned to look into the college’s songs, including the Alma Mater songHail! Pomona, Hail!” [Listen Here, Lyrics Here] and make recommendations.

In addition to being an alumnus, I am connected to this issue by being the General Editor for the 1968 edition of the school songbook “The Songs We Sing At Pomona”. It included background material on the 17 songs. For “Hail! Pomona, Hail!” I quoted the jacket notes from a 1958 record by the song’s composer Richard N. Loucks. He indicated the song was written for a blackface minstrel show at the school. In addition I wrote a letter to the Pomona College Magazine in 2002 about a photograph of a 1910 minstrel show at which the song purportedly debuted.

Apparently some anonymous advocates passed out flyers on campus last spring. It is truly a troubling indictment of persons at Pomona who are not willing to stand behind their own views. My name has been brought up in this issue with the implication that I somehow favor banning the song. This was done without my participation or consent. One purpose of this letter is to disown any support for or involvement in the ban advocacy.

In editing the songbook, I did not do any original research. Now some original source research has been done rather than secondary sources such as the record jacket. This is a hallmark of honest academic pursuits. The show in question was in fact a fundraiser for the baseball team. The Student Life of January 21, 1910, gave this account, “The Finale, ‘Blue and White’—the words and music of which were composed by Richard Loucks—sung by the whole troupe, was splendid.” No mention at all about “Hail! Pomona, Hail!” The Pomona College Handbook for 1910-1911 included “The Blue and White” but did not mention “Hail! Pomona, Hail!” The words for the two songs are not similar. In the next year The Pomona College Handbook for 1911-1912 included “Hail! Pomona, Hail!” along with “The Blue and White”. The conclusion is obvious that it was composed by Mr. Loucks sometime between the two handbooks. In 1958 Mr. Loucks’ recollection apparently confused his two fine songs as to their actual debuts within a year. That’s understandable after nearly half a century. We can thank Rosemary Choate ‘63 for this diligent research.

The ban advocates have the burden of proving their case, both for the facts involved and the proposed extreme punishment. They need to present evidence showing the song was ever used in the show. Right now the evidence shows it wasn’t.

It’s troubling that this original research was not conducted by the ban advocates months ago. I understand that thousands of dollars in grants were received for work over the summer on the issue. Why could not any of these faculty/students find these easily discovered facts? How about an audit by whoever made the grant?

Ban advocates contend that if “Hail! Pomona, Hail!” were contained in a blackface minstrel show, it should be shunned as being fatally tainted under a guilt-by-association process into an anti-Black/Negro/African-American song.

We should examine this assertion. As everyone knows from having sung the song many times, there is absolutely no connection to anything racial in the music or lyrics, let alone anything disparaging. This should be the end of the matter among responsible academics. What if the song had been written for a Plug Ugly show?

Ban advocates apparently have taken umbrage about the blackface minstrel tradition of the day a century ago. That’s their prerogative. But then they apply a “cootie” approach to the subject. This approach says that if something, in their opinion, is offensive in any way to them and is connected to any otherwise innocent bystander, then they can penalize or ban the bystander totally—and anything remotely connected to the bystander. Sort of a group punishment mentality. Sort of a modern “memory hole” from George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sort of “corruption of the blood” from the Middle Ages to go after relatives of criminals and so on. The ban advocates have appointed themselves to speak on behalf of some amorphous group which is “offended”. In this controversy, from what I can tell, none of the ban advocates has been elected by any such group to act as spokespersons.

Politically-correct fads and advocacy do not make good science, history, or college policy. Pomona has the important ideal as a thought promoting academy, not a thought police academy.

Actually, Pomona would do well to offer a freshmen course in Critical Thinking. Many colleges have this course on how honestly to pursue all lines of study. It deals with logic, fallacies, red herrings, false premises, group think, original source research, statistical measures, and valid scientific and historical evidence.

It has been put forth that some donors may refuse to donate to Pomona because it does not ban “Hail! Pomona, Hail!” as a patently racist song. This is truly a troubling assertion. Just how many closed-minded politically-correct donors are out there that we should fear? Remember, Pomona has a vast cash reserve in the billions of dollars in its renowned endowment fund. Even without any more donations from anybody—not just the alienated ones—the college could function just fine in its current mode for a half century. Actually, Pomona may gain from donors who favor academic honesty.

Even to outsiders the conflict seems like a petty cavil. Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist" of The New York Times Magazine in his column of August 10, 2008, concluded without much ado, “Sing out—full-throated, clear-conscienced.”

Finally, as to the remainder of your committee’s activities, you should hold open public hearings on this matter. You should publish your committee’s report in draft form on the college’s website, so that informed comments can be solicited before any action is taken. You should seek out free speech advocates for comment.

Frankly, I’m troubled by an Administration which has let this issue get this far and has imposed an interim ban. We should find out what written procedures the Administration followed in poisoning the well with such a preemptive prejudicial strike. The Trustees should weigh in. They have ultimate authority for the college. They should make the final decision.

Please let me know how you will proceed. I will be happy to contribute to your further deliberations in this important issue.


Carl Olson ‘66

Cc: Committee Members
President David Oxtoby
Trustee Chair Stewart Smith and board members
Editor, The Student Life
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