Pigmies placed on the shoulders of giants
see more than the giants themselves.
Lucan - The Civil War, Book II (c. 60 A.D.)
Nothing in education is so astonishing as the
amount of ignorance it accumulates in
the form of inert facts.
Henry Brooke Adams 1907
I don't have any handy statistics to back this up, but I imagine it's a safe bet that in the '60s and '70s, a greater percentage of high school students graduated and went on to further their education than in any preceding generation.
Prior to World War II, college had been a luxury and even with GI Bill educational benefits after that war, many veterans were more anxious to go to work, start families and get on with their lives. With the post war construction boom there was a demand for skilled tradesmen and craftsmen. The cold war with the Soviet Union provided defense contractors with enough work that they could hire former servicemen to use the technical training many of them had learned in the military. It wasn't as if everybody was rolling in dough but it wasn't the depression either.
It was a nice, safe, simple existence in a nice, safe, happy time. Fathers worked, kids went to school, mothers kept house and families ate dinner together most evenings. College was still not a necessity, but it was becoming obvious that people with degrees made more money than tradesmen and defense plant employees.
For parents who dreamed of giving their children every luxury they'd never had for themselves, a college education and a guarantee of a secure future went to the top of that list of luxuries. Then as science and technology became more a part of everyday life and the job market became more and more competitive, it began to appear as if education beyond high school would not only be advisable, it would be almost essential.
Even families who owned their own businesses or farms came to realize that college and other formal schooling for their children might increase their profits and growth potential. If junior were to attend business or agricultural college he could improve his chances for a secure future and Mom and Dad could enjoy their golden years, safe in the knowledge that their grandchildren would be provided for.
So college became the thing to do if you were ever going to succeed in life, and for many spoiled baby boomers, it served another purpose beyond education:
It prolonged the four-year-long high school graduation party and postponed the need to accept any sort of responsibility other than maintaining a grade point average high enough to keep their student draft deferment.
But it wasn't all fun and games.
It was a continuous series of critical decisions:
What school to apply to, what major to pursue, what elective courses to select, how many sets of socks and underwear to take along...the pressure never let up. And that was before you even got started. It was a traumatic experience, especially if the biggest decision you had ever made was choosing between blueberry and maple syrup for your pancakes.
Now you were in a quasi-adult world where you had to make decisions every single day and nothing you learned in high school had prepared you for it. The multiple choice type were particularly frustrating at first.
b)go have breakfast?
c)do the laundry?
d)call home to beg for more money?
e) go to your 9:00am History class?
Sleep in now and grab a late breakfast at the snack bar. Mom will do the laundry when you go home on the weekend to beg for more money.
The History class?
Don't worry. There will be another one next week and by then you can think up a reasonable excuse why you missed this one.
Once you dealt with that dilemma you could concentrate on the really tough issues facing the average campus social animal:
What to wear, what party to go to, who to go with, when to arrive, how to get there and where to go afterwards.
It's difficult for me to say what I liked most about college in the meadow. There were so many things going on that they all seem to blend together when I consciously try to recollect them today.
But at the same time, a day rarely goes by that some event or natural phenomena doesn't stir an old college memory.
I can't watch the leaves changing color in the fall without remembering Homecoming, course registration and football games.
The smell of beer never fails to evoke an image of keg parties and fraternity shindigs.
Any time some popular radio disc jockey gets the urge to say something radical or controversial I instantly flashback on this or that campus demonstration.
And then there's the food thing - especially when it comes to liverwurst.
I know it sounds crazy and there's probably no one on earth who could relate to it except me, but college was the place where I changed my mind about liverwurst.
There was this little neighborhood bar near the campus that started offering a free lunch in 1966. It wasn't really free. You had to buy a glass or a mug of beer first but with your libation you got to go to a table set up against the wall and make a sandwich from a generous spread of cold cuts and Wonder Bread.
Unfortunately, the free lunch ran from 11:00am until the food ran out and I had an 11:00am class four days out of the week. By the time I got out of class, there was never anything left except liverwurst...and I hated liverwurst!
For the first few days I contemplated bringing my own lunch or paying for overpriced, overcooked hamburgers in the school cafeteria. Eventually, hunger and economics won out and I resigned myself to trying the liverwurst.
It wasn't bad actually. Add a little mustard, a thick slice of raw onion and wash it down with a mug of Bud...it got better every afternoon and before I knew it I was looking forward to it. I might even have passed up a corned beef on rye for a slab of liverwurst on white bread.
Today whenever I see, smell, taste or even hear the word, "liverwurst", I enter a time warp. Suddenly I'm back in the meadow, sitting in my 11:00am French class checking my watch to see how long till liverwurst and beer.
Obviously, college was not one long continuing exercise in frivolity or it would have been banned by a conservative establishment for being far too much fun. There was a lot more to it than socializing and leisure activity. Beneath all the escapism and pleasure seeking was a genuine desire for growth, improvement and knowledge.
It stood to reason that something was wrong in the world and even if the motivation was just idle curiosity, we were after all, students. And to legitimize the title, we did feel obligated to indulge (and make a point of our involvement) in some sort of academic or social research in the finest traditions of Plato, Jefferson and James Dean.
The meadow abounded with opportunities for committed involvement in the issues of the day. It was a time when individuals fought desperately to belong and at the same time, to stand apart. Everything from art to music to dress was controversial. Personal achievement was often more accidental than intentional and everyone seemed to be making a social or political statement. The most inane blunder or prank could become a fad overnight.
Remember wearing shoes without socks? Think it was a fashion or political statement?
Actually, some guy just woke up one morning and found out he was out of clean socks. He put his shoes on without them and went to class that way. It was a simple matter of expediency for him but in a matter of weeks, students on campuses from Maine to California were going to class sans socks. Professors thought it was a fad, students thought it was a revolutionary movement and the establishment thought it was dangerous.
All because one guy forgot to do his laundry!
But that was the way of the age. The world was starving for answers to unposed questions and the inquiring mind saw a messiah or guru in any character who looked offbeat and liked flowers.
But there was no coincidence involved when it came to political awareness!
The conservatives among us (and they existed in significant numbers) were fired by long standing traditions and a commitment to maintain and preserve what was best about the country.
The liberals on the other hand were equally committed to investigating new concepts in social development. The principles involved were not in opposition to each other but the proponents were. Each side believed their way was the only way and saw the adversary as a mortal enemy. Neither side was willing to recognize that each was looking towards a goal and that those goals were not mutually exclusive.
I remember one incident in 1966 with crystal clarity.
It was mid spring and I was freshman at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City. They had mandatory Army ROTC for freshmen and sophomores but as a transfer student I had been exempted.
Everyone I associated with was required to take courses in military science, wear a uniform and participate in drill one day each week. Most of them enjoyed the diversion and a few were looking forward to a commission and even a military career upon graduation.
The Vietnam war was still a distant reality and the peace movement, although it was gaining in popularity and momentum, hadn't hit the conservative campus in full force yet.
A notice on the bulletin board announced that there would be a one hour silent peace vigil in the quadrangle from noon to 1:00pm. The ROTC types were all talking about it and although I hadn't yet made up my mind on the subject, I decided to skip my beer and liverwurst to check it out.
The turnout was predictable on the spectator side. There were about two hundred vocal and angry pro-military students assembled and there were a number of others leaning out of the windows on the second floor above the courtyard demonstration.
One of the windows held a makeshift sign offering "Free Matches and Gasoline to any Pacifist Bastard who Wants to Burn Themselves".
It was an obvious reference to Bhuddist Monks committing suicide by self immolation on the streets of Saigon to protest the Diem regime.
The demonstrators themselves numbered less than ten somber, orderly individuals who stood in silence holding anti-war placards and quietly ignored the jeers and jibes of the spectators.
One of them was a guy I had talked to frequently in the student lounge. His name as I recall was Jim and he was a decent sort. He was one of the few married guys in school and he loved to talk about his wife and his two infant children. He also liked football and I'd heard he had been a star athlete in high school.
He looked a bit out of place among the other demonstrators, most of whom struck me as misfits, but his eyes told another story.
His eyes said that the whole idea of war was a source of deep concern to him. His eyes said that he was sincere in his feelings on the issue. His eyes said he belonged there.
In the midst of the jeering and hollering one of the ROTC cadet commanders walked up to Jim and dumped a shopping bag full of matchbooks at his feet. Jim just stood there with the others and bore the insults.
After the demonstration I still talked to Jim quite a bit but the subject of the war and the demonstration never came up. I think I respected him for being secure enough in his beliefs that he didn't feel he had to make a point of them at every opportunity.
The ROTC guy with the bag of matches was okay too.
His parent's had come to the United States from Cuba in 1960 so I could understand his point as well.
As for me, I spent over three years trying to decide what I was doing in college while there were big things happening everywhere else.
I could understand the pro-peace side for its simple rationale and I could also understand the patriotic motivation of the pro military side.
What I couldn't understand was why nobody seemed to be able to get together on anything.
Was I the only one who understood that a man (or woman) had to do what their conscience dictated?
Didn't anyone realize that you could hold on to all the good things about the country and still continue to seek better methods of understanding and preservation?
It was all too confusing to do anything but kick back and enjoy life while you could.
I plodded along with the college crowd, unimpressed and unfulfilled. I had my beer and liverwurst for lunch every day and eventually it became two or three beers which meant skipping a class here and there.
It didn't really matter.
I wasn't learning anything important enough to make a difference in the world.
But I was starting to show some of the signs of becoming a career student and the thought scared the hell out of me.
In August of 1968 one of my high school friends was killed in Vietnam. He'd gone to college for a year but dropped out. He got a mediocre job, worked until he received his draft notice and when his time came, he went.
When I returned to school that fall, everything seemed to have changed.
I didn't get the same kick out of it that I had always gotten before.
I was tired, pissed off and more than a little bored.
I was at that point in the meadow where I was beginning to be able to tell one flower from the other and it was time to pick one and move on.
It was time to make my own political statement.
I had to decide if I was going to please my friends, the Establishment or my family.
I decided to please me.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps on January 6, 1969 and enjoyed it enough to stay for nine years. I've never had any cause to regret that decision. It was the single most rewarding flower that I carried out of the meadow.
But when I decided it was time to move on and return to civilian life, I took advantage of the GI Bill and went back to college.
I was at once anxious and hesitant. I had many happy recollections of my pre Marine Corps college days, but I also remembered the open hostility I experienced when I paid a visit to the old school following my return from Southeast Asia more than seven years earlier.
The school I chose for resuming my studies was a lesser known institution in the process of developing a fine record for successful, innovative programs in business, nursing, public administration and education.
They had a system known as 'double tracking' that was designed to offer each course in both a day and an evening session. That way, a student who worked changing shifts didn't have to be concerned about missing a class because of his work schedule. It was ideal for veterans who worked a full time job and therefore there was a large veteran enrollment.
There was even an "Office of Veteran's Affairs".
When I stopped by to inquire about benefits I was informed that there was an active Veterans Organization on campus with a following of 'cute, man hungry young groupies' just like a rock band.
The advisor, a Vietnam vet himself, wanted to know if I was interested in joining.
I told him that the groupie idea had my attention and he said
"Welcome Home, Brother!". It seems that college life doesn't really change much in this country and the students I met while completing my undergraduate studies were not unlike the kids I attended college with in the meadow.
They wanted to belong and to stand apart at the same time.
They wanted to make their own statement and they wanted to have fun in the process. What surprised me however, is that a significant number of them were sincerely interested in the opinions of the veterans and other older students.
They wanted to know about Vietnam and the peace movement and Woodstock.
They wanted to know how we felt about the draft and about the draft resistors. They were anxious to hear about our feelings on a host of subjects from My Lai to drugs to civil rights and Watergate.
They wanted to hear about the meadow from people old enough to have picked the flowers and they wanted to know what the flowers smelled like.
I felt bad that I couldn't really explain it to them.
There's just no way to adequately describe the meadow.
If you were there, you already understand.
If you weren't, there's no way you ever could.