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“Pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth”

[Robert Burns commemorative stamp] — One of the best tools for teaching with-out the curriculum in a residential college is a timely poem-of-the-week in your college newsletter. You won’t go wrong today if your selection honors the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

But with so many available, which one should you choose? There’s no right or wrong answer. I think I’d select Burns’ famous song in praise of independent virtue, “A Man’s a Man for a’ that.”

Young people, and not a few grownups, often need encouragement to think and act for themselves instead of just going along with the crowd. For each student who needs to learn the skills of group-work—fashionable today in education circles—there are ten who need to learn to think independently. Burns’ “man o’ independent mind” is just what every residential college, as its own little republic of letters, should be raising up.

And can we have some intellectual fun on this occasion? You bet! As soon as the poem-of-the-week comes out, I’d have people scurrying to their dictionaries and then heading down to the college office to receive a chocolate prize for correctly defining coof and gree and hoddin grey, with a grand prize going to anyone who brings me another poem that uses a numismatic metaphor. (Do you see it?)

So here’s a hand, Robbie, and gie’s a hand o’ thine.

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave—we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021