Wednesday, October 14, 2009

College Daze

Let me channel Allan Bloom for a moment. As the fall weather is upon us, and I was driving into work today, it made me think of my own college experience (again), of what made it different. A little nostalgia. A little bemused anger (look back to find my rants about not getting a job there if you want to see where that comes from). So here goes.

The professors (traditionally and affectionately known as tutors at St John's College): they were so much more colorful than I and my colleagues elsewhere. Maybe that's why I was turned down. We had one guy who was about 6'6", a hunchback, who'd survived persecution in some Eastern Bloc nation (Hungary or Romania, I forget), who (at his request) had his office in the belltower at the top of the oldest campus building. Another tutor did tai chi in the fog on the field at 7am. One lady tutor had translated a lot of captured Nazi documents after WWII. Another was a brilliant scholar, but her English was not colloquial, so any idioms or current pop culture references had to be explained to her, and she still wouldn't quite get them. All colorful.

The students: We weren't too far behind on colorfulness. We'd pull a prank on Mortimer Adler every year when he'd come to give an (interminably long) lecture. We'd stay up till dawn, talking Nietzsche and Socrates, Kant and Virgil. We'd build a 20' tall Trojan horse on the quad. We'd pull the freshmen out of class once/year and get them drunk. We put a big ball on top of the observatory and dressed the whole structure in a grey suit, so it'd look like one of the tutors (who was very short and round himself).

Were we smarter than my current batch of students - mostly commuters, most working full time while going to school? Maybe a few of us (certainly not me). Were we members of an intellectual elite, educated to do great things? Judging by how most all of us have gone on to crashingly ordinary lives of 9-5 jobs, paying mortgages, and raising kids - I don't see how.

But what I think we had, what I remember most about those days, and which I have kept since, and which I don't see very much in young people today: I had a sense of wonder instilled in me there - at ideas, and words, and images, and people. Maybe I had that when I was very young, but I think by the time I'd gotten to college, I'd lost a lot of it, but it all came back, and with a new awareness and a new ability to articulate and analyze that wonder. I don't know if my students have that. And if I were to pity them for anything, or feel superior to them in some way, it'd be that.

EDIT: Looks like my friend, fellow teacher, and fellow writer Matt Cardin, reflected on similar issues - using quotations from famous people, rather than anecdotes, but to the same point.


Blogger Matt Cardin said...

This is where two of my college roommates, whenever they would accidentally voice the same thought in unison (as happened rather often since they grew up together), used to look at each other ominously and exclaim, "Get out of my head!"

A very nice post, Kim. The part about your college's student population being made up largely of people who also work full time rings with particular potency and poignancy for me, since I'm really, really, really, really thinking that the bringing down of the Berlin-ish wall between academia and the work world is an unmitigated disaster, especially for the former. God help (or damn) the propagandists who frame it as a wonderful advance and a liberation. What's the point of college anymore, according to mainstream American cultural attitudes? To gain you the paper credentials that will enable a person to "get a good job" or "good career." Translated from propaganda into plainspeak, this says the point of college is to gain you the piece(s) of paper that will enable a life of more advanced wage slavery, which you and all of your friends will tell yourselves and each other is the good life.

Woe is us.

Thanks again for the post.

2:31 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

See, Matt, I'm still totally of two minds on that. I do believe that many people go to college now for very wrongheaded reasons.

OTOH - are not the pleasures of the mind, to which your quotations so eloquently refer, a good available to all? (I just don't have it in me to be an elitist, I don't, I confess!) Or, to make another observation - although a fair percentage of my classmates came from affluent families and therefore could afford the luxury of four years of leisured, reasoned dialectic, most of us (including myself) were from solidly middle-class families. So why did I deserve that edification, but my students now don't?

2:39 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

I, too, was raised, and still live, in a solidly middle-class manner, so both philosophically and demographically, in terms of where I came (and come) from and how I have led my educational life, I'm certainly not championing economic elitism as the deciding factor for who goes to college. But I am favoring an elitism of ideas, and that leads me to decry the way America's higher education has become caught up virtually wholesale in the uber-consumer-capitalism that has come to define American life over the past several decades. And I see this as being intrinsically related to current shape of the work-to-college-to-work dynamic, which formerly served as a practical example of the American Dream in action but has now become absorbed into the freneticism of the our consumerist dystopia, what Benjamin Barber famously dubbed "McWorld." I think the gravity of this ideology's influence has corrupted higher ed's ability to fulfill the kind of mission and function that you and I both like to ascribe to it, both on the student end, by skewing their attitudes and assumptions and expectations on the way in (recasting them in the direction of viewing a college education as a mercenary means to a materialistic end), and on the institutional end, by turning colleges and universities into places run by business administrators according to, and for the better advancement of, corporate business goals.

Where's any sort of elevated educational purpose in all of that? Obviously, individuals can still try to use the system to their own ends instead of plugging mindlessly into and being used by it. That's always a good idea and can always be accomplished to some extent, and some people do it, and they represent the continuation of the former middle-class intellectual aspiration and hard-working approach to getting a college education. Plus, the colleges are full of well-intentioned individuals who exert a positive influence.

But the zeitgeist itself has become progressively more oriented toward attitudes and practices that submerge these good intentions within a larger sea of philosophical dreck. Exhibit A is the oceanic flood of inbound college students whose time and attention is divided between their studies and their jobs, the latter of which aren't serving as springboards to some higher sort of life-level attainment that intimately involves their college studies, but which they view as the real locus of their concerns, with college merely aiding and abetting that.

4:26 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Okay, I think I see more what you're saying. You're saying consumerist and business models and thinking have corrupted education. I think that's true enough. But I still have to wonder: if reading great books and thinking deep thoughts is good for everyone, and is not (directly) applicable to the earning of money, then how/why could we keep such education from some, w/o implying they are somehow inferior, or only worthy of "mere" training for their wage slavery. Or are you envisioning some other educational utopia of which I haven't yet thought?

4:37 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

I'm offering a (probably overblown) description, not a prescription. I'm not advocating excluding anybody from higher education, unless it's on the basis of academic merit, which, of course, invokes a chicken-and-egg infinite regression and opens up a whole new can of socioeconomic worms that may be impossible to deal with.

I certainly don't know of any educational utopias, and I deliberately avoid romanticizing the past, so I hope this prevents my falling victim to utopian fantasies or the Good Old Days syndrome. But I may be self-deceived.

How to respond positively to the educational problem we both perceive in our respective forms? I truly don't know. But for me, trying to gain an accurate intellectual understanding of its nature and causes constitutes a necessary end in itself.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

A p.s.: My personal choice would be not to exclude the zombies by consigning them to perpetual wage slavery (and trying to program them to love it), since that would probably exclude me, too, but to awaken them, as painful and seemingly impossible a proposition as that might be. I don't know who I'd nominate as worthy candidates for undertaking that task, though. Certainly not myself.

5:34 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Ok, that's where I was stumbling on your comments: in most other forums where I see such comments, they're inevitably followed by some prescription, usually in the vein of "Let's get back to the Good Old Days" as you describe the temptation you're trying to avoid (and which I alluded to at the beginning with my invoking Bloom as my muse, as I think his rhetoric tends in that direction). I even read someone recently arguing in all seriousness that we should return to an honor/shame culture, as though those worked out so wonderfully well for all involved in them!

Non-elitist me, I'd like to think everyone would benefit from reading Socrates and Shakespeare, but if the majority of people want (and are willing to pay for) only that knowledge which financially benefits them directly, I don't know how to dissuade them. But I'm still surprised at how middle class families as recently as my college days (25 years ago) were willing to risk sending their kids to a school and program that made no guarantees of financial success, but now they're so worried about money they only want to know about the bottom line. Don't make me nostalgic for the Reagan years! Liberal me couldn't handle that!

5:46 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

Glad we're talking now. :-)

Your second paragraph leads me to think you'd love a recent Chronicle article, if you're not already aware of it:

Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor

Read it and see what I mean.

6:57 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Hooray! That's just what I was talking about! And it brings back memories from before SJC: my father is the one who pressured me to go there. Why, one might wonder? He was a successful engineer; he earned more (w/o even adjusting for inflation) in the late 80s than I make today. What the hell was he thinking? He thought, so far as I can tell (and alas, he's no longer here to ask), that he'd paved the way: he'd been the first person in his family to go to college, he'd gone to night school while working during the day, he'd gotten a high paying job (that he bitterly hated most every day of his life). He'd paid the dues for the family. Now was the time for someone to learn for learning's sake. And that was bequeathed to me. And although things backfired on him in an odd way (going to SJC made me a Christian, for which he'd never forgive me), I'll always, always be grateful to him for that aspiration and that sacrifice that he made. Go dad!

10:43 PM  

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