Sep 9, 2010

"The Campus on the Hill" by W. D. Snodgrass. What Is College?

The Campus on the Hill by W. D. Snodgrass : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

What is it with me and college campuses? You didn't ask, so I did.

In September of 1963, the United States and I were on the brink of everything: Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, environmental awareness, and the rug of trust in America, that rug pulled out from under everyone who wasn’t hiding in the cellar, where the apples were rotting. Parents, teachers, politicians, clergy—everyone had lied.

Of course, we didn’t know what we were on the brink of. That’s what made it . . . fun?

I was a freshman at Donut College, a small liberal arts school, on a hill overlooking a quaint small town. I’d drawn for a roommate a guy who, unlike me, was aggressively interested in politics and the workings of the human animal.

It was maybe our second conversation when, for lack of a better topic, he said, “So, are you a Republican or Democrat?”

“Oh, Republican,” I said, as if I were saying ketchup, or Kleenex—and as if I were saying, “Isn’t everyone?”

“Yeah?” he said. “How come?”

There was only a hint of challenge in his tone; he wasn’t pulling the wings off a butterfly. He was just interested in the subject—human nature—and each person's place within it.

My response was a grin as silent as it was stupid. He had me, without even trying. We both knew I had barely managed to stifle the infantile response, “Because my parents are.” But I couldn’t find a useful word to utter, so I kept still.

That was one of the most embarrassing, important exchanges of my life. A little voice in me hissed, “You will never let yourself feel this stupid again. Or this childish. See to it.”

So when W.D. Snodgrass’ poem critiques the elite white morons of “The Campus on the Hill,” it is both right and wrong. I entered that campus as a bumpkin, and, while my grades didn’t show that I learned much over four years, I was somewhat proud of learning to demand Why and How of things and people, including myself, though there haven’t always been answers.

The main defense for Snodgrass’ argument, I suppose, is that so few college graduates seem to have learned the sacredness in Why and How, and responding to detail, in detail, seeing both the forest and the trees, along with all the ways they are wrong. The being wrong will never stop; everyone must see and accept that, then plow forward all over again. It seems that most people feel that, if they're getting the rent paid, they should not have to ask hard  questions, no matter how intriguing they are. That probably applies to a lot of liberal professors, as well as Republican money-grubbers who protect their piles with ferocity more than thought.

Otherwise, why the great . . . unpleasantness we’ve seen? Look back at the irrational resistance—fire-hoses and German Shepherds, that resistance—to civil rights, or the ten-year, murderous struggle in the war in Vietnam, or the 2008 presidential campaign with its casual references to candidates “Hillary” and “Barack” by a supposedly liberal press, which addressed the Republican candidates as “Governor” or “Senator” or simply “Mr.”

Yet I cannot wholeheartedly accept Snodgrass’ critique of the college experience. There’s a lot wrong with the undergraduate scene, but it’s one way for dumb youth to bumble into a better understanding of themselves and their world. It is indeed a second birth. Or at least it can be.

Obviously the college experience doesn’t have to happen on a pretty hill, but it can.
And it might be youths' first exposure to, or last chance at, living and working in a place of beauty, which might inspire more careful thinking—about how to make more things more beautiful. It can do that, and that’s a very big deal.



Jean Spitzer said...
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Anonymous said...

I think I've mentioned before that I listen to Fox Radio when I'm driving; it's important to know how the other half lives, though I doubt they return the favor and tune into NPR.

One of the gambits the gasbags are using to get their un- or undereducated audience to tune in is to sneer at higher education. At the same time being quick to point out they themselves graduated from a prestigious uni. Having their cake and eating it too, I guess.

It's disturbing to hear the people call in, increasingly disturbing. Those without the power of critical thought are so easily led to dark and primitive places of the human soul.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I think you know how loud and clearly I hear you. "They" do seem completely deaf to other perspectives. And I am very far from the radical left, very attuned to what I consider its flaws. And I do think there are plausible conservative arguments. (I almost said "legitimate" arguments, but a pumpkin-colored light started blinking in the sky).

All that, of course, says to me that the Right these days is very far right indeed. I wonder why the pundits aren't offering more comparisons between today's Right and the Lester Maddox, George Wallace Right of yester-year. Except for his psychotic delusions, Nixon almost seems moderate by comparison.

In the early 1990s I tried listening to Rush while driving. In spite of his bombast and repetition, he seemed to have . . . new? entertaining? . . . information and takes. Then he started a self-righteous rant against euthanasia, at a time when my father was dying of cancer.

It's not that euthanasia was an option or would be a picnic for all involved; it's that no one has those answers, and Limbaugh is at the top of the list of Great Not Knowers.

As usual, however, they are free to legislate the death bed and the bedroom, while demanding that the Left legislate nothing in the way of generosity. That's a stale observation, but its blaring accuracy still astonishes me.

So after my radio adventure with Rush, one more effort an open-mindedness, I haven't had the . . . spunk? . . . to try Beck and the others, who all sound even dumber and more bellicose than Limbaugh. They might well be in it only for the money; it might be all show biz. But I agree with you that they create and represent a very dark place in human nature.

I better stop.

PJ said...

I'm assuming that you didn't visit Harvard to get these fine images - such an ugly campus. A student has to wear blinders to venture anywhere near the Math and Science building, it should be demolished and rebuilt with better donor $$$'s.
The poem is far reaching and I have a lot of thoughts about higher education but what's really interesting to me is that in a way you've presaged my Sunday sermonette with this post: consider some discussion on HuffPo that explores the notion that it was perfectly fine for The Right to champion Terry Schiavo in her vegetative state but let's not even consider letting Teresa Lewis, who is white with an IQ of 70 and who cannot make a grocery shopping list without help, escape death by lethal injection. She knew what she was doing when she committed her crime because people smarter than she is said so. And we should just believe them and not consider the facts in the case.

My new favorite saying - Democracy demands wisdom.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"they are free to legislate the death bed and the bedroom, while demanding that the Left legislate nothing in the way of generosity. "

A stale observation? I don't think so. I recently received another one of my aunts pass on e-mails that was so offensive I was left speechless...then I pulled an article off the web authored by someone with a much greater possession of critical thought then myself. I sent it out in a "reply all"...not heard a word since. yay

I've never been great at argument or critical thinking. My strength lies in my ability to read body language and detect bs

jean said...

AH, you listen to that while driving? Wow. I sometimes tried to listen to Limbaugh while driving, but it was too crazy-making; too many lies.

It's way too easy to take a swing at the new generation from the superior vantage point of age. They'll learn, and getting to do some of that learning in a beautiful campus is not so bad.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

btw: do you know the background story to the artwork in the rotunda?

Banjo52 said...

Paula and PA, Jean also asked about the rotunda, and for some reason I didn't know if I was supposed to disclose info about it. But it's open to the public for tours during business hours, so: it's a lobby in Flagler College, but began as a St. Augustine hotel built by Mr. Flagler (Henry? railroads), for whom half of Florida is named. I've forgotten any historical or artistic detail I might have heard, except that his southern adventures were impressive (and imperialistic?).

Paula, I've also noted, along with a few million others, that "They" find it OK to kill at one end of the life cycle but not the other--while they scream about the "moral relativism" they perceive on the left.

Paula, that'll teach you to hang out around math and science!

I haven't seen Harvard for decades, but my memory is similar to what you say. Of the Ivies I've seen, Princeton, Yale, and Cornell were spectacular, though pretty daunting to me (ditto Duke). I can't imagine being 18 and thinking I belonged among that stone or those brains. But they remind me that I probably believe what I said the other day about a campus being another kind of cathedral.

PA, I'll check on that article. Also, I wonder if your self-assessment gets back to AH's right and left brain biz a few days ago.

Anonymous said...

I can, Jean, because the arguments are so bad. They're funny, but scary when people call into agree. Such as "If a man can marry another man, what's to stop him from marrying a plant?

"That's what the English professors from Harvard want you to believe. And I know that, because I graduated from Harvard!"

It makes my fern shiver.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, maybe that's some of the wisdom Paula refers to. I bet you're right about the young. What older generation hasn't taken potshots at the younger?

Banjo52 said...

AH, And who's to say a man shouldn't marry a plant, for godssakes? Was that guy a plant bigot?

Keep that fern warm now.

PJ said...

Well, maybe if he marries one of these ferns:

Between Two Ferns

Jean Spitzer said...

I don't mind the different, sometimes bizarre arguments and points of view so much, it's the outright telling of lies when the person doing the talking knows that the statements are lies and deliberately uses that misinformation to influence followers.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, thank you! If you don't know the series Paula has offered here, you owe it to yourself to check it out, esp. after the heavy stuff we've been into recently. I just did Sean Penn and John Hamm. I'm making myself spread out the others.

That's "Between Two Ferns."

Barbaro said...

I don't mean to pick a nit, AH, but NPR is not the obverse of Fox. That's what the far right wants people to believe, but it's simply groundless. NPR may be many things: boring, preachy, stuffy, selective (who isn't?), but they are not combative, loud, bullying, willfully distorting, sensationalist...

The views on Fox don't bother me nearly so much as the bile. I'm just not hearing anything like that on NPR. There are bilious folks on the left too, of course, but that's not NPR. I'll read the Wall Street Journal once in a while, which is conservative without being pugnacious, but I almost literally can't stomach Fox, Rush, et al.

Also, of course, Fox is profit-driven and NPR isn't. That doesn't make NPR perfect, but it certainly ought to make Fox suspect.

Fundamentally, NPR asks questions, and Fox makes declarations. Questions may be flawed in many ways, but in most cases they're more thoughtful, open up more avenues of info and inquiry, than declarations.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Can we return to the rotunda for a moment? Never did get the name of the deco artist but did get the artisian for the main dining hall. Tiffany glass. More extraordinary is the fountain outside the building. It's meant to be a sundial and I couldn't help but think it was contemporary; although I doubt it. More research needed

Rockefeller, Andrews and Flagler Oil Refinery the RAF Refinery. Very interesting

Jean Spitzer said...

PA, that's quite a fountain. Maybe early 20th century?

Check out between two ferns, if you haven't yet.

Jean Spitzer said...

Murals by George Maynard, glass by L.C. Tiffany. Dates to late 19th century.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Man, I am coming in so late to this conversation! And the twists and turns it has taken leave me spinning, wondering what my original take was on your post.

OK, I grasp it again. Your photos, your story of 'Republican or Democrat' - they all reflect the last minutes of innocence we have in our life. After that... after someone/everyone interjects such a question, you are changed forever.

As a kid, it was hard enough to hear the "I don't want to play at your house - I don't like you anymore" taunt. Now, in college, the taunts are different. And not so innocent.

And I return to my old campus and look at the clock tower, at the houses that line the campus perimeter - and I think "Lots of innocence has been lost here. Unknowingly."

Is it bad? The rotundas, the clock towers - none were built as tributes to the loss of innocence, but they know it happens.

I agree with Barbaro - the opposite of Fox is NOT NPR. He has the reasons pretty well defined.

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