Loyal Opposition - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Loyal Opposition

A great statue of a regal goddess, bearing a scepter and an open book, sits at the heart of Columbia’s campus. Nestled in her robes is an owl, identifying her as Athena, goddess of wisdom.  This is Lady Columbia, the 18th-century personification of the young and fair American nation. We students call her Alma Mater, our “Soul’s Mother.”

It’s not just a Columbia convention to give that illustrious title to the school that educated you. It’s a mark of deference and respect, a due acknowledge of the debt (often literal!) that we owe for having been stretched and grown and broadened at a university. That, at any rate, is how it should be.


As John Henry Newman explained in his classic on education, The Idea of a University:

[The student] profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom.

Unfortunately Columbia often falls short of this lofty ideal, achieving instead a different kind of liberal education. The personal-achievement, individual success culture dominates this campus, like so many others, with the hookup culture as its dark underside. “Sex in the Tropics” fulfills a Core Curriculum requirement, and Bill de Blasio has overwhelming support among Columbians.

How, then, do I treat Columbia with the piety due to one who is the mother of my soul when I have so many criticisms of it? In the British parliamentary system, the opposition party is known as “Her Majesty’s Opposition”: loyal to Crown and country while disagreeing vehemently with the regnant regime. That is how I aspire to treat my beloved Columbia—deeply affectionate towards her own traditions and ideals as a one-time Anglican liberal arts school, I remind her of her own commitments. I can always point to the grand façade of Low Library, which proclaims that it stands “For the advancement of the public good and the glory of Almighty God.”

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