Archive for Sunday, May 29, 2005

Are college years simply a costly retreat from reality?

May 29, 2005


The president of the college my daughter is attending recently sent a letter to parents expressing concern about the "cloister" model of the college and "the protected campus environment in which students' every need is met." Students ought to "break out of the bubble and connect with the surrounding communities," he wrote.

My initial reaction was: How can they have time to connect with their surrounding communities? They should be burning the midnight oil, cramming for exams. They should be stressed out from lack of sleep and the fear of getting D's.

Suffering from sticker shock myself at the stratospheric cost of my daughter's tuition, I drifted off on a nostalgic trip that began, "Why, when I was in college:"

I remembered a monastic existence at an all-male university where students were prohibited from driving cars and social life was nil. I remembered my first report card which suggested that I would soon be flunking out if I didn't hit the books and the grim discipline I embraced to survive - a routine of coffee and cigarettes, late nights, early mornings, furious note-taking, forced marches between classes. I remembered the suitably macabre room in the psychology building where it was quiet and I could study, surrounded by jars containing brains suspended in formaldehyde.

Some institutions of higher learning today advise freshmen to "take time to smell the roses," since they've worked so hard to gain admission. In four years at college, I had maybe six dates. I never watched television or saw a movie. It seems as if I never looked up from the pavement or the books. I don't remember smelling a single rose. I can't say it was a lot of fun.

But I did get a rudimentary education. I've never pushed myself so hard. And I learned more in those four years than I've learned in the 40 years since. One of the most valuable things I learned was that it's not enough to read; you must re-read. Also, first drafts are invariably shoddy. You must write - and re-write. College was often the intellectual equivalent of breaking stones. But I remember moments of exhilaration, coming out of an exam giddy from an all-nighter and multiple doses of No-Doz with the conviction that I had a fair chance of escaping an "F."

Grading was on the curve, so that A's were rationed, two or three per class, as well as a requisite number of D's.

I encountered some incompetent professors and a few brilliant ones. I don't remember one of them ever bringing his political opinions into class. What I remember was how passionately many of them loved the subject they taught.

My daughter tells me that it's possible to sail through college with a light work load. A's are "not elusive," she says. Some of her peers complain they don't feel challenged. Some courses seem more like propaganda than intellectual inquiry. It's not unusual for a professor to drift from the subject and unleash a polemic about contemporary politics. One professor began his course by encouraging his students to "use their right brains" in his class. They should be creative and think outside the box. Apparently some are beginning to feel cheated by this philosophy. "We'd like to have something a little more rigorous," one of them boldly said.

I graduated in 1963, a historical watershed. The institution I attended was steeped not just in traditions but in prejudices. The student body was almost exclusively white males. It excluded women, and ethnic diversity was virtually nonexistent. The outside world seemed as remote as Mars. If anyone ever lived in a bubble, we did.

There was a riot my senior year, but it had no political content. It was spring, the sap was flowing, someone blew a few notes on a saxophone from a window and suddenly a mob of young men poured from their dorms, set some benches on fire and trampled the president's flower beds. Within a year, such eruptions would be angry, purposeful and designated as "demonstrations."

My university's curriculum was dominated by the works of Dead White Males. But those old fogies included Plato, Dante, Shakespeare. I wonder how many of my daughter's peers will graduate from college without ever having read "Hamlet." Fortunately, she read it in high school. In fact, she sometimes says that she got more discipline and intellectual stimulation in high school than much of what she's getting in college.

Lack of engagement with the outside world was perhaps a flaw of education at that time, but I appreciated that four-year retreat. It was a unique opportunity to turn inward and savor the fruits of knowledge without an agenda. My education was dedicated to developing understanding, rather than opinion. It was almost perversely non-pragmatic.

The humanities were thought to be a good preparation for any walk in life. Our studies were supposed to give us a perspective from which to interpret the experiences and challenges that awaited us. It was assumed that once out of college, we could master accounting or marketing or whatever it took to make a living.

Has the definition of what constitutes "a living" changed? Now that I'm the one paying the bills, I admit I've become a bean counter. And my question is: Am I getting my money's worth?

George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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