Alma Mater

Alma Mater



About the sculpture

This section is an excerpt from  Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan (OMOM); see also the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan app.

Alma Mater is Education personified: the serene focal point of the central quad of New York City's oldest institution of higher learning. Over her classical drapery she wears an academic gown—see the tiny pleats on the shoulders? She sits regally, her scepter topped by the crown that has appeared on Columbia's seal ever since King George II chartered it in 1754. With her other arm also raised, she seems cordially to greet those entering the University's gates.

On the arms of Alma Mater's chair are torches, once again symbols of enlightenment (as in the Statue of Liberty and Verrazzano, OMOM #1, 3). The torches are labeled Doctrina and Sapientia, Learning and Wisdom. As Francis Bacon recognized (see end of this page), it's essential not only to know the facts, but to have the proper means of interpreting them.

The laurel wreath on Alma Mater's head symbolizes fame or victory. (Compare Sherman, OMOM #31.) The huge book on her lap represents knowledge transmitted from generation to generation. Tucked into the folds of the gown near her left leg (it took me three visits to find it) is Athena's owl, another symbol of wisdom.

Alma Mater owl

Alma Mater is a brilliant adaptation of the central figure on Columbia's seal, which is sculpted in low relief on the back of Alma Mater's chair. A decade after the statue's unveiling, French explained that he had aimed to create "a figure that should be gracious in the impression that it should make, with an attitude of welcome to the youths who should choose Columbia as their College."

About the subject

This section is an excerpt from  Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan (OMOM); see also the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan app.

It's shocking that anyone would throw a bomb at a figure of such serene grace and beauty as Alma Mater, yet it did happen in 1970. In the context of that turbulent time, the event had a grim symbolic significance.

In 1968 the Tet Offensive in Vietnam proved an overwhelming victory by any standards except those of the American media. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, Robert Kennedy in June. That summer massive riots erupted at the Democratic National Convention, resulting in the trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969.

At Columbia, students occupied five buildings and held an administrator hostage to protest the University's defense contracts and the construction of a gymnasium with separate entrances for university and community users. Separate entrances, they stubbornly asserted, would lead to segregation. After several days the students were evicted by New York City Police.

In November 1969 the media broke the story of the My Lai massacre. In December came the first military draft lottery in the United States since the end of World War II. Late 1969 and early 1970 brought a rash of bombings in New York: at a high school, a movie theater, a federal office building, banks, department stores, Midtown office buildings. The Weather Underground accidentally blew up the Greenwich Village townhouse where they were manufacturing bombs. Twenty-one Black Panthers came to trial in April 1970 for plotting to assassinate police officers and blow up buildings.
At Columbia, students demanded that the University calculate reparations due to the Hispanics and African-Americans in neighboring Morningside Heights, and use the money to bail out the Panthers. The New York Times carried a picture of Abbie Hoffman (one of the Chicago Seven) haranguing students from Alma Mater's pedestal. He joked that recent bombings were examples of "better living through chemistry," and gave weather forecasts for American cities: "Seattle, boom! Chicago, boom! New York, boom, boom, boom!"

In late April 1970, President Nixon announced that the United States was invading Cambodia in order to destroy Viet Cong bases. Student riots erupted across the country, with the National Guard called to many campuses. Students and the police or the Guard usually battled using rocks and tear gas, but at Kent State on May 4, Guardsmen shot four students dead. The ensuing riots closed down at least 450 campuses for weeks. A hundred thousand antiwar activists marched in Washington.

Eleven days after Kent State, someone threw a bomb at Alma Mater. No one claimed responsibility. But why would anyone waste an incendiary device on a sixty-seven-year-old sculpture, when all those Midtown bastions of commerce were so close at hand? Or, if a work of art on the Columbia campus was to be the target, why not the nearby sculptures Jefferson (OMOM #50), Hamilton, Rodin's Thinker, or the Great God Pan?

In the context of the times, the bombing of Alma Mater would seem to have been a flat-out rejection of what the statue and Columbia stood for: Learning and Wisdom, and the fabric of advanced civilization that was built on them. One can muster sympathy for the Cid (OMOM #54), in whose medieval world life was nasty, brutish and short. He had little choice but to use physical force as well as his wits to survive. But what excuse can be made for intelligent American students in the late twentieth century who chose detonation over deliberation?

Wisdom and knowledge

[Studies] perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning [pruning], by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that [i.e., proper use] is a wisdom without [i.e., outside] them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. -- Francis Bacon, "Of Studies," Essays of Counsels Civil and Moral, 1597-1625