The Collapse That Didn't

By Trachtenberg, Stephen Joel | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Collapse That Didn't


Trachtenberg, Stephen Joel, The World and I


I project myself back onto Morningside Heights in the later 1950s, when I was an undergraduate at Columbia University. And what I quickly perceive are some obvious reasons for despair, and for the feeling that this particular system of undergraduate education is on the way to collapse.

Truly committed students, who strive not only to learn but to think in original and creative ways, represent a narrow elite at my college. In marked contrast to these "superstars" are the hordes of undergraduates who just struggle to get passing grades from their instructors. The latter seem a lot more fixated on the intellectual glamour-spots of downtown Manhattan than on the students who dutifully scribble notes in class, and whose often comic limitations they joke about among themselves.

COLLEGE YESTERDAY

Cheating on exams, especially by "smuggling" little notes-to-one-self into the exam rooms, is common. Objects of envy include fraternity members, who have access to bedrooms in which playing around with coeds is at least a possibility. The perspective of most students is limited to a horizon of a few weeks, since "vocational" attitudes are restricted to the premeds and prelaw students, who are often regarded--though the actual term is not yet in use--as nerds. A nasty attitude of contempt is generated toward the "commuter types" who arrive at West 116th Street on the subway each morning, carrying their lunches in brown paper bags.

And yet these same years are now commonly regarded as a period of glory in the history of Columbia's undergraduate college. Amid what often seemed like a genial chaos containing rivalrous student cultures, some devoted to books while others were devoted to football, beer, and the occasional "panty raid" on Barnard College across the street, individual students were building up a range of knowledge and skills that put their names regularly into the newspapers of subsequent decades. They included a future winner of the Nobel Prize, several activists on the Washington scene, and a great many people who made successful transitions from parental households where higher education was a rarity to the world of today, where graduate and professional education have shaped new definitions of what it means to be "middle class."

I begin with this tale to convey how difficult it is to be definitively certain about what is actually going on in our undergraduate colleges. Kids who in the 1950s seemed to be practical jokers at best and outright cheaters at worst were "catching fire" despite themselves. Having been forced again and again to perform research of some kind, if only in the college library, they could yank this particular skill out of their inner depths when it became a key to corporate promotions and higher salaries.

Meanwhile, even some of our "class geniuses" were reminded, by their premedical and prelaw peers, that the time would inevitably arrive when they would actually have to earn money with their high-functioning brains rather than merely collecting praise from their instructors. For the average student of that time, college added up to a long process of balancing and compromising. "Brains" complained about having to pass a swimming test, of all things, to graduate. "Jocks" generated comparable levels of resentment when an elite student just happened to hand in a seventy-five-page term paper that, the instructor agreed, cast some valuable new light on the poetry of William Butler Yeats and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

COLLEGE TODAY

When I look at today's undergraduate scene, I find myself responding in a worried fashion to much of what John Tagg so eloquently has to say. One of the big issues back in the 1950s, after all, was that the "old version" of a Columbia professor--that of a humanist with a universal perspective--was giving way to a research-oriented specialist more interested in teaching graduate courses than in helping freshmen through Humanities 101 or other parts of what was not yet called the "core curriculum. …

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