I spent most of Saturday with a fellow Antioch student who's here in Philly. One of the things we did was sit down at Penn's Landing while drinking water ice. After all, we are in Philadelphia. We just wanted to prove it. We'd probably have eaten cheesesteak, too, if either of us ate steak.
Antioch, like most colleges, has a motto. In English, though. It's "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
Just writing that here makes me feel a little silly. At Antioch, the motto is cliché. I remember reading a letter to the community in the school newspaper which contained the motto and groaning. Knowing that a handful of Antioch kids read this page and are groaning makes me feel like a bad cliché. But oh well. The motto elicits such a response because it's so ingrained in the culture. Most people at Antioch will agree with it. The groans are only partially the sighs of youth grown of irony responding to sincerity. They're also "well, duh!" groans.
I bring this up because of the conversation we had. She wanted to know if the idea of going and joining a commune was making the world better, or ignoring the world's problems. The question, basically, was of how to change the system - from within, slowly and incrementally, or by rejecting it. It occurred to me that it's the sort of discussion thousands of Antiochians have had.
The obvious thing that people see when they see the motto is that it shows a committment to making things better. Underlying it is a theme of depression and self-hatred, though. It comes from Horace Mann, the college's first president, who likely uttered it shortly before his death, about himself, thinking he hadn't done anything. You've probably heard of Mann in your high school textbooks, a decent sign of someone who got things done. But the quote is a sign of a person, and a school, that probably won't ever be happy with its achievements. Which is good, in terms of people being motivated to get things done.
But it's bad, in terms of making people happy with their life.