What do you

cheer for?

by Ted Fraser

Photos | Hana Nikčević

Measuring and evaluating school spirit 

It was a cold, wet day in late September. A group of us were sitting around one of the big, long tables at Burwash, begrudgingly downing the cardboard-tasting coffee with a rapidly shifting sense of nausea and vitality. Amid the conversation, a sheepish voice, fluttering through the air like some flightless bird, asked: “Hey, wasn’t there, like, a football game yesterday?”  

Homecoming, otherwise known as Yesterday’s Football Game, is a non-event at the University of Toronto. At more extroverted universities, homecomings are pulsating, alcohol-heavy manifestations of school spirit. Students annex city streets, chant for their school, and participate in university events. Social media’s set aflame as thousands light up Snapchat and Instagram with school-centric snaps and captions.   

Fundamentally, school spirit is to a university what patriotism is to a country. The unifying force that wafts into Fourth of July barbeques is the same force that permeates Aberdeen Street keggers in Kingston or Broughdale Avenue block-parties in London.  

These spirit events can be a useful shot-in-the-arm for universities, intimately tying together the student body through a single, shared idea. Trust, community, even happiness all seem to be overflowing out of pride-filled campuses.  

But lurking between the flashy university apparel and rowdy chants is a quieter, more destructive side of school spirit. 

In Canada, where humbleness and humility are the country’s moral bedrock, the “loud and proud” iterations of school spirit are relatively rare. In the United States, by comparison, college football is attended by many—in some venues, the number of screaming fans exceeds 100,000– and university-sponsored, school-loving fraternities and sororities are firmly planted atop the social totem pole. These frats and sororities are a boon to the local spirit scene, increasing school pride through themed parties, events, and fundraisers. And there’s strength in numbers; school-supporting frats and sororities act to mop up otherwise aloof students, wringing them out to live under one rowdy roof.  

But here, the most commonly recorded attendance figure for Ontario University Athletics (OUA) games are zero; in most cases this does not fully reflect the complete attendance by students, but flags a movement away from investing student energy into traditional school spirit outlets. Also, because of frats’ and sororities’ notorious, parasite-like presence across Canada, any mention of “Greek life” is invariably met with an eyeroll or groan.  

Last year, Yale put out a North American university guide. After discussing American colleges and praising their cultures and reputations, the authors begrudgingly approach the drab, Canadian section of their report. They scrawl, “One aspect of college life Canadian universities fail to offer is school spirit.” 

Broadly speaking, they’re not wrong. However, cramming ninety-six universities into a disparaging sentence doesn’t aptly explain the varying and nuanced university experiences offered across the country.   

When you talk about school spirit in Canada, the conversation veers towards a handful of infamously spirited institutions: Queen’s University, The University of Western Ontario, St. Francis Xavier University, and Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick.  

The question is: what makes these universities more extroverted and spirited, while other Canadian universities appear to lack the same enthusiasm? 

A small town and a long history seem to be major predictors of a spirited university. Taken together, these elements—sometimes with a shot of sports mania for good measure—will make for a “loud and proud” student body.  

Kingston has an approximate population of 114,000. Sackville has a population of 5,000. Antigonish, the home of St. FX, has a population of a little over 3,000. London is an outlier in this respect, as its population is 400,000—however, it’s no Toronto-level heavyweight and, population wise, London is smaller than minor-league cities like Surrey, B.C. and Laval, Quebec.

 

But here, the most commonly recorded attendance figure for Ontario University Athletics (OUA) games are zero; in most cases this does not fully reflect the complete attendance by students, but flags a movement away from investing student energy into traditional school spirit outlets. Also, because of frats’ and sororities’ notorious, parasite-like presence across Canada, any mention of “Greek life” is invariably met with an eyeroll or groan.  

Last year, Yale put out a North American university guide. After discussing American colleges and praising their cultures and reputations, the authors begrudgingly approach the drab, Canadian section of their report. They scrawl, “One aspect of college life Canadian universities fail to offer is school spirit.” 

Broadly speaking, they’re not wrong. However, cramming ninety-six universities into a disparaging sentence doesn’t aptly explain the varying and nuanced university experiences offered across the country.   

When you talk about school spirit in Canada, the conversation veers towards a handful of infamously spirited institutions: Queen’s University, The University of Western Ontario, St. Francis Xavier University, and Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick.  

The question is: what makes these universities more extroverted and spirited, while other Canadian universities appear to lack the same enthusiasm? 

A small town and a long history seem to be major predictors of a spirited university. Taken together, these elements—sometimes with a shot of sports mania for good measure—will make for a “loud and proud” student body.  

Kingston has an approximate population of 114,000. Sackville has a population of 5,000. Antigonish, the home of St. FX, has a population of a little over 3,000. London is an outlier in this respect, as its population is 400,000—however, it’s no Toronto-level heavyweight and, population wise, London is smaller than minor-league cities like Surrey, B.C. and Laval, Quebec.  

“But here, the most

commonly recorded

attendance figure for Ontario University Athletics (OUA) games are zero”

Common sense would dictate that as a city grows, so does the number of opportunities. The choice to participate in a school-wide march, football game, or Homecoming Weekend is less obvious in a city with more stuff to do. In a smaller town, attaching yourself to your school is just the logical thing to do.  

The four “spirited” universities in question—Western, Queen’s, St. FX, Mount A—were all founded at least one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Western was established in 1878, St. FX in 1851, Queen’s in 1841 and Mount A in 1839.  

An established history and a dense, interconnected network of alumni, traditions, and events, fuel a university’s legacy. This strand of pride surfaces everywhere; businesses and restaurants often have the year they were set-up displayed under their logo. It’s a legacy-maximizing humble brag that implies, “We’ve been here for a hundred years. We must be doing something right.”  

School spirit can be an important aspect of university life. School-wide pride, like an elastic band, neatly organizes an otherwise dislodged and scattered group into a tight, intimate family. Students seem happier, there’s a more welcoming atmosphere, everyone feels united.  

But it’s not all good news. School spirit has an ugly side, too—a side that’s too often lost in the verbal parade of praise that automatically erupts from spirited students, alumni, and university executives alike.  

Kate Stone, writing for The Odyssey, says: “when you are a person who doesn’t get involved [with the university], you are ruining the fun for everyone else and they will be mad at you or shun you till the festivities are over.” 

This view could be valid; people who don’t march to the preppy beat of the university could very well be “ruining the fun” for everyone else.  

But, seen another way, conscientious objectors to “school spirit” aren’t necessarily anti-establishment, they’re just a subset of students who have different priorities and interests. In larger cities there are more outlets for students to pursue external interests from campus life. The concentration of school spirit is typically not as intense compared to a school situation within a town or city whose main export of vivid life is the academic institution.  

There’s a possibility that this attitude will lead uninspired students down a sparsely-populated path of alienation, leaving them left-out and cut-off. Recent research has shown that feelings of exclusion and physical pain activate the same regions of the brain—showcasing our intense aversion to exclusion and the tangible pain of being left-out.  

Also, giddy and blind devotion to any establishment (be it a university or sports team) diminishes one’s ability to evaluate the institution as a whole. It’s human nature to idealize what we’re connected to and dismiss what we’re detached from. But, a certain level of detachment is a necessary ingredient in any successful critique.  

If universities want to evolve and improve, the administration, the alumni, and the student body must be able to hop out of the school spirit-induced bubble and plainly discuss the school’s shortcomings—not just celebrate its strengths.  

Unfaltering faith and pride can both bind and blind, inspire and alienate. But school spirit is more than just drunken PBR-soaked street parties and densely-packed stadium stands. Schools must learn to ease the pressure to participate, while balancing the tug-of-war of pride and self-awareness.