Magazine article The New Yorker

Doctor, Doctor

Magazine article The New Yorker

Doctor, Doctor

Article excerpt

Last Monday, Pratt Institute held its graduation ceremony at Radio City Music Hall. At 10 A.M., giddy graduates and their families milled around the auditorium, while, backstage, a breakfast buffet had been laid out for professors, administrators, and a handful of people with distinguished careers in the arts who were about to receive honorary degrees (official wording: "the degree of Doctor of Fine Arts honoris causa . . . with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto"). A few of the honorees looked especially pleased: they'd never received college degrees in the first place.

"I was kicked out of college," said Patti Smith, the musician, who would be delivering the commencement address. She left Glassboro State College in 1967, in her third year. "It was a plethora of things. I could not afford to finish. I was working my way through college in a factory, and I was errant in paying for my education. And I wasn't a disciplined student.

"But it was a good experience," she went on. "All experiences are good one way or the other. I met people I formed lifelong friendships with. I learned about the history of art."

The author Jonathan Lethem, who was wearing a blazer and a shirt with brown flowers, said that he could relate. "I have this long, uplifting, hard-earned status as a sophomore on leave from Bennington College," he said. "I've spent a quarter of a century as a sophomore on leave."

A third honoree, the director Steven Soderbergh, brought up parental expectations. "If you have a child, you hope that they'll find something that they love to do," he said. He skipped college altogether, having decided, as a kid in Baton Rouge, that he wanted to be a movie director. "My parents weren't worried," he said. "My father convinced me to finish high school. He said, 'I'd really appreciate it if you did this one thing for me.' "

Lethem said, "I started a novel in the middle of my freshman year. I was nineteen. I was so much more compelled by that than by anything in my schoolwork, and I couldn't imagine waiting." After leaving Bennington, he spent a few months wandering around the country--"sleeping on dorm couches, hitchhiking to California, doing my own re-creation of the Beat Generation."

"I always wanted to go to college," Smith said. "I used to dream of going to Cambridge. I had a very Hermann Hesse idea of it. …

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