Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Knowledge is Good"

The late 1960’s and the early 1970’s was a glorious time to be in college, and most students had no plans of ever leaving the safety of the university nest. In 1969, the Viet Nam War raged on nightly during the TV news hour. My older brother, who had been drafted after graduating from college, was somewhere near Dnang, just in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was the turning point of the War.  He returned home to North Carolina the next year, the same year I entered Duke University. That was the year that the Selective Service System for the United States conducted the first draft lottery. Drinking and drugs were rampant across university campus’, and no one was sober when those first birthday numbers were pulled on December 1, 1969. The lottery winner earned immediate entrance into the war upon graduation. Everyone fled to the safety of the university and tried to stay there as long as possible.
As a woman, I was not part of the draft. I entered college with the intention of being a math major. In 1969, in an effort to produce critical thinkers, Duke University instituted a new core curriculum to insure that their graduates had a depth to their education that included a wide range of subjects- the humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences. This trend was the educational rage of the seventies, a continuum from “the second half of the twentieth century (when) it (the university) added the function of providing a haven for the arts.”
Since the 19th century, Harvard, the Duke University of the North, had forged the way in higher education, setting the precedent of what would be taught in all universities across America. The year that I entered as a freshman, Duke followed Harvard like an eager disciple, reinstituting into their curriculum requirements, foreign language, English composition classes, as well as those core curriculum courses.
Fortunately for me, during that first fall semester, after tracking a solid F+ in freshman Calculus (still one of the highest grades in the class), I had the good fortune of ending up in the hospital with mononucleosis, probably acquired at one of those lottery parties. I was allowed to drop calculus with no penalty. I immediately changed my major to religion and art and settled into a liberal arts dream education. I had no idea what I would do upon graduation. I wasn’t alone. During those war years, we just wanted to stay in college. I immersed myself into the philosophy, music, religion, and art of the middle ages, and floated through four years of educational bliss.
One advisor tore up my registration card. I should take a computer course, he advised. He demanded to know what I expected to do upon graduation. Do upon graduation? I was being educated. That was enough. But this professor, my advisor, was ahead of his time. There was a change coming in education.
In 1969, Duke eschewed any subject taught for the express purpose of attaining a job. That was the role of technical schools. Course work such as journalism, for example, was for the state university (read this with an effected northeastern blue blood accent).  Remember, at that time, computers were the size of buildings, and taking courses in this new area of study meant spending countless hours working on punch cards. No, that was not for me. I was philosophizing with Erasmus, walking in Maria de Medici’s shoes while Renaissance madrigals swirled through my brain. What would my work be? School, of course. I continued on to graduate school, knowing that, if I was not able to find a job as a museum director, I would teach. These were the Animal House years:
Jennings: Teaching is just a way to pay the bills until I finish my novel.
Boon: How long you been workin' on it?
Jennings: Four and a half years.
Pinto: It must be very good.
Jennings: It's a piece of shit. Would anyone like to smoke some pot? 

Unfortunately for me, I allowed myself to be rescued by marriage before landing that teaching job, or running that museum. During my married years, education changed. The Animal House/Faber College ideal for a Liberal Arts Education, as expressed in the film with the words chiseled on the base of Emil Faber’s statue: “Knowledge is Good,” had given way to studies that prepared students for high paying jobs. Business courses were where it was at, while the number of university students majoring in English and the Liberal Arts dwindled.
When my first son, the computer genius, told me that he had switched his major at Duke University from Computer Science to philosophy, I was concerned. “How will you earn a living?” I asked. (I could hear the flash back conversation with my advisor from twenty years before.) “ I will be a philosopher,” he said, “ All I will need is a pair of sandals and a robe.” He ended up on Wall Street and can purchase Gucci sandals whenever he pleases. He discusses philosophy at cocktail parties.
The highest paid graduate from Duke, the year I graduated in 1973, was the lone female engineer. She was ahead of her time. My next-door neighbor in Seattle, also ahead of her time, is one of the top female employees of Microsoft. She was a math major in college. And we all know the story of Melinda Ann French, the Duke graduate who moved to Seattle, worked at Microsoft, and became, Melinda Gates.
And here I am, not ahead of my time, but back at it, in graduate school, studying for an MFA, painting and writing, with desires to write and teach writing as part of the “elephant machine,” so that my students can write and teach writing themselves. And hopefully, my novel, unlike professor Dave Jennings from Faber University, won’t be “a piece of shit.” And, when all the cocktail parties are over, where I shine with the vast compendium of liberal arts facts that are crammed in my brain, I smile and know, after all, “Knowledge is good.” Wasn’t that the point?
Jennings: Don't write this down, but I find Milton probably as boring as you find Milton. Mrs. Milton found him boring too. He's a little bit long-winded, he doesn't translate very well into our generation, and his jokes are terrible.
[Bell rings, students rise to leave]
Jennings: But that doesn't relieve you of your responsibility for this material. Now I'm waiting for reports from some of you... Listen, I'm not joking. This is my job!

 (Quotes are from the book: Elephant's Teach by David Myers, or from the film: "Animal House".

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