The hype for my forty-fifth college reunion this past June started months in advance. The school, one of those that “changes lives,” is the archetypal small liberal arts college. It was the place, my parents promised, that would prepare me for life.
As newsletter editor, I needed to rev up my classmates to attend. The goal of the reunion is to keep us connected to the school so that we’ll (1) give money and (2) send our sons, daughters, and grandchildren or recruit others to do the same. The economics are grim. Full-fare-paying students can be counted on two hands, and the endowment is not large. Faculty (90 percent of whom are tenured or tenure-track) haven’t received raises in three years.
Late adolescence is a rough time, and not all are prepared to revisit it, especially, it seems, not most of the people I was close to. Thus, the reunions have become times to get to know the people I barely talked to then, either because I was too shy and awkward and they too popular and poised or because our majors were different and our paths rarely crossed.
The campus of memory no longer exists. The grubby student union, the shabby gym, the antiquated science labs, the theater that doubled as a lecture hall and convocation center—all have been re-placed by state-of-the-art facilities. Still, the chief selling point of the school remains: that its liberal arts education equips you for anything. “Six months after graduation,” the president beams, “95 percent of our graduates are either employed or in grad school.”
In my time, we had two core curriculum courses, one during our first year, in which we studied the literature, history, and art of major epochs, and a synthesizing one our senior year in which we wrapped up “art, knowledge, and conduct.” They disappeared in the seventies. The last retired pro-fessor from that course was available to speak to us. E-mails flew across the country as our planning committee mined the collective memory for what we’d actually read and done. He unearthed a partial syllabus: Albert Camus, André Malraux, Kenneth and Elise Boulding, C.P. Snow, Harvey Cox, Martin Buber. What about my memories of a mimeographed paper by Todd Gitlin from SDS, a pamphlet with a gleaming black panther on it, Erich Fromm’s book on the humanism of the young Marx? Not on the radar.
“What writers would you include in this course if you were teaching it today?” we asked the prof. “You couldn’t teach it today,” he countered. “It was about Western civilization, and now we live in a multicultural society.” I looked around at my white classmates, only one of whom I knew for sure to be Jewish. Had the core courses prepared us for the world that broke open so soon after we left in 1967, the year before “it” all changed?
“You all thought these courses were so useful,” complained a biologist. “I never needed them.” An economist chimed in, “I didn’t know an...
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