Posts Tagged ‘college’

We drove through a storm that was like a precursor of our future under climate change on our way to deliver our older daughter to her new apartment in Boston. Somewhere on a highway in Connecticut, the skies opened up and lightning split the clouds. Torrents of rain followed us into Massachusetts.

The next morning we discovered that a tornado had touched down a few miles from where we had spent the night. Strange weather, but we can expect more of it in years to come the climate experts tell us. The weathercaster called for intermittent showers and temperatures in the high 80s on Labor Day, when we, along with a hundred thousand students and their parents, would converge on Boston for the city-wide move-in day.

The streets of the city were clogged with double-parked moving vans as we circled the neighborhood near Boston College looking for a place to park our overloaded rental pickup truck. Lucking into a spot less than a block from the apartment building on busy Commonwealth Avenue, we waited while the real estate agent showed up with the keys to the apartment, which our daughter would be sharing with two other Simmons College graduate students on the second floor of an attractive prewar brownstone.

We unloaded the truck for the next ninety minutes, making a few dozen trips down the street and up the stairs, jostled by movers and joggers, past Boston cops standing around welcoming new students and warning them about the perils of underage drinking while generally standing in everyone’s way. I was on the verge of heatstroke, my t-shirt as soaked as if it had been pouring rain, when the second roommate arrived with her mother, and we did it again.

When it was finished, I lay on the floor of my daughter’s large, high-ceilinged bedroom with a fan blowing across my limp body while the women unpacked and chatted in the other rooms. I thought about college and what it was like to be young and doing everything for the first time, the excitement of it and the anxiety. I remembered how it felt in the long ago days when I was I was a young student in Norfolk, Va., going to classes and hanging out at Ward’s coffee shop across the street from Old Dominion University with my friend Tim or drinking the thin brew you could legally drink if you were 18 in Virginia in the dark era of the Vietnam War.

Those days I heard from my parents in Florida once a month or so in a letter or an expensive long distance call. The technology boom that would put computers and instant messages in everyone’s pocket was still decades away. But I heard its first ticking on a new machine perched on the counter in Ward’s coffee shop in the form of a video game called Pong – a black screen, a white ball bouncing between two thin white lines that moved with a knob on each side of the machine. Students -like Tim – lined up to play it. I scoffed and read the English poets.

And then the war was always with us, a storm on the far side of the world that pulled us toward it while we held on by our fingertips and a thin piece of cardboard in our wallet called the 2-S student deferment. The excitement and the anxiety of it is read on my daughters’ faces and in their texts, heard in their phone calls, and in the other rooms, where the women come and go. I lie among unpacked boxes while the fan blows me away.

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Last Saturday was a glorious spring day as we drove south and eastward toward Gettysburg, site of the monumental Civil War battlefield. At Gettysburg, the Army of the South, under Gen. Robert E. Lee made their final foray into Union territory with disastrous results for both sides. We were not there for memories of battle, however. Our younger daughter had been accepted into Gettysburg College, and we were going there to make a decision about her future.

Gettysburg is a small Liberal Arts college that sits on a pristine 200-acre campus adjacent to the battlefield and to the town of the same name. We rose early and made the two-hour drive through a dense fog in the central Pennsylvania ridges and valleys, our daughter, her mother and I. If she ends up at Gettysburg, this is the drive we will be making in a few months to deliver her into the hands of strangers, the small child who only recently slept on my lap and listened to my stories.

We spent the day touring the campus, or listening to professors and students talk about the life of the mind, and about traveling to do research in India or South America. The Liberal Arts are not about getting a job and paying off your student loans, they are about polishing your soul and contributing to society, the things we used to think college was about. I felt like I was in the 1920s. And the town of Gettysburg, where we went to have iced coffees later, only added to the sense of times past.

I am not a very practical person. The price tag for all this beauty and intellectual romanticism will eventually have to be paid. But we are all dreamers around here, book readers and scribblers, and lovers of philosophy and history. We are Romantics, without a penny in our pockets, whistling past the graveyard.

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I use Wikipedia all the time, but it has been a long time since I’ve looked something up in an encyclopedia. But the other day I was doing some background research for an upcoming column and happened onto a beautiful and very meaningful article on the topic from the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

The search term I used was “tragic flaw,” which took me to a dry as dust one-page article on Wikipedia. But a half page down I noticed the unusual word “hamartia,” with a link to a 28-page entry in Encyclopedia Britannica. (Note: When I tried the link at work later, it only gave me a synopsis.) Whichever scholar wrote the Britannica entry, he or she produced a tour de force of literary and philosophical insight. I came away both moved and enlightened, and with maybe a deeper understanding of humankind and myself. It is the sort of experience I was looking for, and often found, in my literature classes long ago. It is, I think, the justification for the Liberal Arts in higher education.

Looking at college as career training is a lot like that Wikipedia page:  information without much context and with no particular impact on our humanity. We learn a trade, pick up some skills, and become useful economic participants in society. But do we polish our souls? Do we deepen our humanity? We learn to make a living, but rarely learn how or why to live.

We don’t need to go to some exclusive college out in the country or even any college at all to know ourselves. There is many a self-educated thinker and philosopher, Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer spring to mind. The library is the treasure house of learning. But it takes tremendous discipline to really educate ourselves. Sometimes a great teacher can guide us into understanding. It’s happened to me a few times, and the memory of the experience lingers for a lifetime.

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