Getting Here From There

Crabby is seized with a kind of nostalgia…

Since I read about, talk about, and teach about college admission and the college process all the time, I am constantly flashing back to my own college experience. Hearing about the bad behavior of current college students or the critiques of the current climate of higher education, I can’t help but think of that kid from New Jersey arriving on the Amherst College campus in the fall of 1973,  the one that (was) graduated in 1977, and the one who’s writing this blog. College life seems so much different now, but maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention at the time. Maybe the basics are the same but the particulars are different. Or maybe the basics, through some kind of social or cultural alchemy, have altered so as to be unrecognizable. Are my questions laments for the halcyon days that never were or recognition that the quality of undergraduate life has really undergone a sea change in the last 40 years?

A greeting card I’ve always chuckled at has a Roy Lichtenstein-style portrait of a young woman with a hand to her forehead, gasping in the balloon, “Oh no! I forgot to have children!” When I read about current students and their focus on careers and organizing their lives to the Nth degree while in college, I feel like that woman– “Oh no! I forgot to have a specific goal for my life!” or “Oh, no! I forgot to plan for my career!” — as if I’d neglected some basic biological function when I attended college.

In my medium-sized public high school we heard very little, officially, about “planning for college and career.” We were taught things, from English to auto shop, history to home ec. We want to class and did our homework. There was no “test prep.” I sang in the choir and acted in the plays. It was a regional high school, so we came from a number of small towns, some with cow dung and straw still on their shoes, others from blue-collar and white-collar families. There were probably some wealthy kids, but I didn’t know which ones they were; I knew and was friends with some very poor ones, probably some of the wealthier ones, too. My best friend’s parents worked in factories (his mother for Mars Candy Co., lucky for us).

The majority of my 350+ classmates didn’t attend “name” colleges. Many went to local schools or community colleges. Others went into trades or took over their parents’ businesses; kids whose last names were the names of streets and parks slipped into their families’ orbits. The three valedictorians of my class attended Amherst (me), Lafayette College, and Rensselaer Institute of Technology. My friends attended Columbia, Trinity, Middlebury, and beyond that I don’t really remember. I don’t remember keeping score, comparing acceptances, or lamenting rejections, either.

Amherst was an accident for me, really. My guidance counselor suggested I look at a small liberal arts college, and after he’d explained what that meant, he threw the name out and I said, “OK!” Alighting from the Peter Pan bus in the center of town the summer before my senior year, I saw the “college on the hill” and it was as if my imagination had come to life–it looked like what I thought college should look like. I applied and, luckily, Amherst also chose me.

To give you an idea of how different the application process was then, I present my complete application essay, responding to these instructions:

“You may feel that Part I of our application denied you an opportunity to describe in detail some special interest, experience, or achievement. Your achievement may have been in art, drama, music, writing or athletics; your interest or experience intellectual or otherwise. Part II gives you extra space to use as you wish.”

Since early in my Junior year I have become extremely interested in choral music. I have since then become a member of the Concert Choir, Mixed Choir, and Madrigal Chorus of my school and successfully tried out for the New Jersey All-State Chorus 1972. At first, I was only interested in singing notes and following the conductor, but I have gotten more and more involved and have even begun to conduct, having been asked to take over a church choir by a friend who was leaving for college. I have also sung with the Masterwork Chorus and the New Jersey Symphony in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

In any of these groups, whether singing, conducting or just listening, I have gotten a great amount of real pleasure. Although I do not intend to go into music as a career, I hope to pursue [sic] it as a hobby with some idea of mastering some of its subtler qualities. In fact, my introduction into music as a performer has been perhaps the most exciting discovery in my school years.

Having read and edited thousands of students’ college application essays over the course of my career, I cringe when I read what my former self had to say. My present self would tear it apart: It’s not well constructed, not detailed, not bursting with energy or hook-laden; I missed the opportunity to expand on the idea of going beyond just singing the notes. It’s handwritten, too, with my careful cursive angling upward across the page and a few crossouts indicating I probably wrote it right before I sent it. But it’s what I thought and felt at the time. It’s naive and trusting, not far-reaching or “important” or slick.

I brought that sensibility to campus in the fall of 1973. I had done well in school, enjoyed my classes, been dutiful in my work. I enjoyed reading and learning things generally, and I couldn’t wait to dive into the world Amherst offered. I wasn’t thinking about much else except that I wanted to be a college professor, maybe in anthropology. I hadn’t really thought about the social aspects, the extracurriculars, and so on. Nor had Amherst spent much effort talking to me about them. I joke now that I didn’t even realize that Amherst was all-male at the time, but whether it was or not never entered my thinking about where to attend college.

Our freshman orientation was a bag lunch picnic at the parklike Quabbin Reservoir, where the president, dean of admission, and the dean of students welcomed us to “the College.” After that, we were bused back to campus. Classes began soon after. We were  there to go to class and do our work, which was to learn something; the rest was gravy.

As a junior at Amherst, in my fraternity shirt (which I still have).

As a junior at Amherst, in my fraternity shirt (which I still have).

That all seems reversed now: gravy is the main dish. When colleges speak I hear a lot more about social and extracurricular opportunities than I do about classes and learning. From the high school side, people seem to talk more about being “college and career ready,” than about studying or reading or experiencing ideas. Emphasis is on developing “contacts,” building your resumé, getting internships, and preparing for after college even before the end of freshman orientation.

But maybe I was aimless and underprepared. I took a good liberal arts path through the curriculum, trying to get out of my comfort zone once in a while. Maybe all my classmates had their courses of action planned out and I just didn’t realize that’s what I was supposed to do. Plenty of my peers had law school and med school in their futures, so there was plenty of focus; I just wasn’t one of those people. Did I miss something? I did major in anthropology and go to graduate school, although I ended up preferring high school to college teaching. I’ve moved around some but have always orbited around education in one way or another. I sometimes think I should have stayed in one place longer.

But to be honest, Amherst made me restless. It taught me to question myself and the circumstances I found myself in and not be satisfied with just doing what was asked of me. On one of my first English papers, my professor wrote, “You write well and this will do, but you can do much more.” That “this will do” has spurred me on, always trying to be better than that. When I taught English, inevitably one of my juniors would complain about what a tough grader I was– “Just because you went to Amherst.” “That’s right,” I’d reply. “And if you want to get there you’ll do better than what you’re doing.” I was always pleased when we got to that point because I knew I had challenged them properly.

My career since Amherst hasn’t been a smoothly rising slope. I’ve taken a few wrong turns and made some possibly rash decisions, but the constant has not been the “connections” I made, the resume-building, or the career advice I got in college; rather, it’s been the spirit and the substance of my education enabling me to move along, adapt, see possibilities, and feel gratified in my work. It’s also compelled me always to be suspicious of complacency and overconfidence.

I feel sorry for students now who have been rushed to a semblance of adulthood without the substance of it, and those who have never had time to contemplate why they are doing what they’re doing. It’s too bad that college has been reduced so often to being a high-speed tunnel from high school to career instead of a leisurely browse through the groves of academe. There’s plenty of glitz and glam now, but it all outshines more fundamental and longer lasting effects.

July, 2015

July, 2015

During alumni weekend after my freshman year, I was assigned to help at the 55th reunion dinner for the Class of 1919. I ended up sitting next to one alumnus and his wife, talking about the possibility of Amherst’s going co-ed. I was cautiously for it; he laughed and said, “Us oldsters are against it!” Whereupon his wife poked him in the ribs. It seemed an indicator of what a place like Amherst can do that he could debate the topic even though he opposed it. I think that’s about as much as you can ask a good education to do.