The Party's Over

Article excerpt

In the 1960s, teaching was a challenge. Today, vocationally oriented students and careerist colleagues make it a chore.

Only two more months left to my job as a college professor. My career and vocation have stretched over more than thirty-five years, much of this time involving my deepest feelings and commitments. I always loved teaching. It was the one thing in my life for which I felt I had a true talent. When I stood in front of a class, I felt liberated from my usual anxieties. I was in control: nothing seemed to faze me. Words and ideas flowed naturally. Responding to a student question or remark, I could animatedly, sometimes wittily, take off for ten or fifteen minutes without faltering. And I always felt freer winging my talks than working from prepared lecture notes.

I had an instinct for how to get the class actively

involved-raising questions about how the moral and psychological dilemmas of characters in films and novels connected to their own familial, social, and work lives. I did this without turning the class into a quasi-therapeutic session in which students subordinated the analysis of a text to endless talk about how oppressive high school was or how little their parents understood them.

I had real affection for the majority of the students I taught: mainly long-haired, pot-smoking, overall-wearing white working- and lower-middle-class kids from Staten Island, Bay Ridge, and Bensonhurst, although there were also housewives who returned to school despite their husbands' objections, radicalized Vietnam veterans wearing green army-- fatigue shirts fresh from combat, and a few black students and upper-middle-class, elite-school dropouts sprinkled into the mix. Most of the students were uncertain and self-doubting about their capacity to write a paper, speak publicly, or rebel against authority. They were usually the first in their families to go to college, and came from homes with few books or cultural and intellectual interests.

It was the sixties. Many of my students were antagonistic toward American society and struggling to define for themselves an alternate set of values-- sexual, occupational, psychological, and political-from the ones in which their parents and high school peers believed. What I loved about them was the intensity and honesty of their confusion-the sense that they were groping toward some large life changes like, in one student's words, "frightened birds seeking a common wind." They pursued their goals without indulging in facile talk about "doing one's thing" or joining some sectarian "revolutionary" organization. When militant Students for a Democratic Society leader Mark Rudd visited our school and delivered a hard-line rap attacking capitalist exploitation and "pig police stations," the students were turned off by his being "heavy" and macho.

The turbulence of their own emotional lives and their wariness toward authority did not make most of them serious academic students-the kind who complete assignments and pursue a subject in depth by heading for the library to delve further into it. But they were intellectually and emotionally involved in classroom discussion, and when I taught a Doris Lessing novel or an Ingmar Bergman film, they became personally engaged in her rebellion against the banality and racism of colonial society, or in his evocation of how intricate and painful relationships between people are.

Those were my most exhilarating teaching years, for my commitment went far beyond the classroom to creating an experimental curriculum that ranged from the foolishly faddish like encounter groups and arts and crafts to serious interdisciplinary courses on American society and modern views of man. We also struggled to form a faculty-student community around the concept of participatory democracy. It was a noble idea, but few of the participants knew how to work collectively. We had people leaving the group in a snit if a vote went against them, wasting valuable discussion time with narcissistic arias about being unappreciated for their contributions, or not showing up at all because their other careers as therapists, writers, hedonists took precedence over institutional work. …