KNAYSI: Preps and propaganda

School spirit counts as propaganda, but that’s not as bad as it sounds

I consider our surprise win against Georgia Tech in October 2011 — which ended in us storming the field — to be a high point for my level of school spirit (so far). Although I nearly broke my leg in a pile of screaming bodies, I limped to the field to chant, sing The Good Ol’ Song and generally exult in our school’s moment of glory.

On the surface, associating a positive term like “school spirit” with a negative one like “propaganda” seems not only cynical but also unfair. But propaganda was not always a derogatory term. Before it was bastardized 150 years ago after entering the political sphere, and then further defiled by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, propaganda was a neutral word. Though we prefer to use terms like “patriotism” and “public relations,” the influence persists as an essential part of our culture — and we are more susceptible to propaganda’s power because of our unwillingness to call it by name.

So let’s return to neutrality: to decide if the propaganda of a culture or social institution is negative, you must identify the pros and cons and weigh them accordingly.

Though propaganda is notoriously difficult to define, the Merriam-Webster dictionary broadly describes it as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” This form of communication influences the attitudes of the community toward particular emotional or cognitive dispositions, usually by emphasizing and de-emphasizing certain ideas and information. School spirit, often defined as emotional support for one’s academic institution, performs a similar function. Applying the concepts to the college environment, it becomes clear that school spirit acts as a form of propaganda.

Wander around Grounds or browse the University Facebook community, and you can observe students’ emotional investment in their college culture: events like Fall Convocation or our most recent football game, catch phrases like “student self-governance” or “Thomas Jefferson” or merely the subtle way two students in discussion start from similar assumptions. These symbols of school spirit saturate our living environment, constantly reinforcing our investment in University culture. Consistent with propaganda models, such examples promote several positive causes: to encourage a robust community of peers, to urge social engagement and to increase self-efficacy, to name a few.

Perhaps a less controversial question than “is school spirit propaganda” is whether school spirit is positive or negative. State propaganda can be quite dangerous. Internationally, it can promote violent, jingoistic tendencies and irrational justifications for military action. Domestically, it may perpetuate unjust policies and social oppressions. School spirit is a different matter. The effects of the University’s school spirit are mostly positive. But there are a few negative tendencies to consider.

The most deep-rooted negative factor of school spirit is the simple fact that it inhibits self-analysis. We ignore (or even defend) the imperfections in our college culture. Take the University ideal of “work hard, play hard:” our tendency to idolize those students who party “hard” but still maintain an excellent GPA. This unhealthy but internalized standard results in significant harm to students, ranging from feelings of inadequacy to ER visits (anyone remember how many people were hospitalized last Boys’ Bid Night?). And who can forget last year’s sense of vindication when the University was ranked Playboy’s top party school just weeks after we once again snagged the title of second-best public college by U.S. News & World Report? The rankings were quickly canonized into our collective cultural memory. In most social circles, the work-hard, play-hard ethic remains a clear source of school pride — and as much as the administration and responsible student organizations try to combat the idea, many entering first years will take the “work hard, play hard” propaganda to heart.

I could continue with further examples – the “not gay” chant as a bastardized form of school spirit, the hostility toward Virginia Tech, our “student self-governance” propaganda encouraging the vilification of former University Rector Helen Dragas — but I leave those for your consideration. The point is to question the irrational or one-sided beliefs of our student culture. You need not condone school spirit — for my part, I frequently engage in it — but you must identify (and make peace with) the nature and source of these beliefs. Most critically, understanding our propaganda better enables us to know when our beliefs cloud our judgment.

In this sense, to understand school spirit as a form of propaganda is a matter of self-awareness, and I believe our community is better off because of it. So become familiar with your school spirit. Cultivate it, understand it and know how to use it appropriately. The justification can be as simple as, “this is my school and I’m going to support it.” But the key is to own your pride, not let it own you.

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