Tuesday, August 19, 2008


This morning, mixed in with the night spam, was a questionnaire from one of my alma maters, or however one forms the plural. The questionnaire, from Northwestern University, makes assumptions as all questionnaires necessarily must do. This one assumed that by now I was rich, honored, and grateful -- therefore would write a check to NU if they could find the right button to push.

Most of the questions (besides income) were about which organizations I might belong to within the NU realm (I had not realized there were so many!) and through which media I got my information. There was no allowance for alternative newspapers or radio or 'zines -- just the category as a whole. I did not check ANY organization. (A surprising number were based on athletics -- well, maybe I’m not surprised: this is NU asking.) I’m probably the only alumn this side of Tahiti who doesn’t watch television, doesn’t HAVE television. They wanted to know my major, but it doesn’t exist anymore. The School of Speech is renamed and reorganized. They didn’t ask whether I ever went to any other universities.

They did ask me whether my classes prepared me for my vocation. I had to say no, but it wasn’t their fault -- no place to mark that. I was educated to be a nice upper-middle-class high school dramatics teacher in a city east of the Mississippi. When I asked the placement bureau for jobs west of that river, she informed me there was nothing there. But while crossing the "Big Nothing" through Montana on the way home I bailed out and took a job teaching Blackfeet on their reservation. What I discovered that I needed was to know how to teach elementary reading to high school kids.

There was no place for me to mark which courses changed my life: Alvina Krause’s acting class, Paul Schilpp’s philosophy of religion class, three weeks of a physics class before the faculty discovered I couldn’t do math. I loved them all passionately and they have equipped me to wrestle with human and cosmic issues ever since. None of it was of any use in a high school English class, at least not if the principal and parents had anything to do with it.

The assumption behind these questions was that if the pr folks knew what my organizational affiliations were (and they were careful not to ask about any political organizations or religious allegiances) and where I got my news of the world, they would be able to coax me into sending them money. Not for any specific purpose but for the further benefit of one of the richest universities you could find, assuming you could discover its true worth. We KNOW that any corporation (no matter that its purpose is high minded) would be considered derelict if it didn’t hide its assets as deeply as, say, the Catholic church or the Wilderness Society. The point of view was simply commodified education, not for the good of the nation but for the good of the institution. (Warren Olney asked for tomorrow's "To the Point," "Can capitalism without democracy succeed?" I have a feeling we're already finding out that capitalism kills democracy, so we'll know shortly.)

Somewhere these question askers must have information about what difference it makes if people get their news from TV (though there must be radical differences among the various channels and networks) as compared to blogs (though again the whole spectrum must be out there). No allowance was made for the huge decline in the value of newspapers as a source of info or a check on the cynical chaos of the nation. They are no longer clams, digging for news; now they are oysters, clinging to the pier and grabbing whatever floats by. I mean, I read newspapers because of what they used to be. Maybe I’ll stop pretty soon.

One of my several other alma maters is the University of Chicago, also well-heeled, but very conscious of their elevated reputation as progressive intellectuals. (Maybe conservative when you get to politics or economics.) Still, they could NOT have given me the education of an Alvina Krause, which was “Method” acting -- a plunge into the depth of passion and crisis that the U of Chicago confines to student health, though it ferments all around the campus (in both students and professors) and is addressed by a ring of helpers and therapists, usually either Jewish or black and therefore not afraid of emotion. U of C money-raising is far more subtle. And the “Criterion,” publication of the Divinity School, actually contains valuable essays, not just boasting. They do still call it “Divinity School” though maybe that’s not as inclusive of religion as some would like. (Not all religions are based on a divinity.)

I predict Meadville/Lombard, my denominational alma mater, might change its name pretty soon. They can spot a trend. They’ve sold the old building, will move to modern space, and have loaded the faculty with black professors in anticipation that Obama will raise Hyde Park to new heights so the “liberals” will reign. They’ve kind of given up asking me for money.

All my other alma maters (almas familias?) are far more plebian and service-oriented. Anyway, they’re state universities. In fact, all the Montana universities are now merged into one big administrative blob, so what does that mean in terms of alumni allegiance? Mostly I think it means that people in Montana are Montana-centric and that’s all they think you need to know. Which campus is irrelevant. What matters is whether you went to school in-state or outta-state, because that will break handily between the Old Montanans and the New Montanans, separating them out without any more enlightenment about what it means than the fact that one sociological side has an Australian shepherd in the back of the pickup and the other side has a golden retriever. Well, maybe the New Montanans have pricier pickups. Which means they get better gas mileage and probably pledge to their alma mater.

The newspaper and radio (That’s the Great Falls Tribune and Billings NPR/PRI) are saying that the national college entrance exam test results show that only about a fourth of the people taking the test are ready for college. What will happen to the other three-fourths? NU and the U of Chicago will say, “Go away.” The state colleges will organize remedial classes. Meadville/Lombard will say, “What important UU’s do you know?”

Does this mean that the people who scored in the low 75% can’t get a decent education? Heck, no. In the Sunday paper was a story about a kid who hated high school and refused to attend. His dad, who was a film reviewer, made the kid go to movies with him and write about them alongside him, after much discussion. (Remember how Norman Maclean's dad taught him here in Montana?) At the end of three years the kid passed his GED and college entrance exams. This is the way people used to learn: alongside their parents at work. They called it “apprenticing.” So this kid had an alma pater, I guess.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is touring to get people braced to hear the news about the results of the No Child Left Behind tests this year, which come out at the end of the week. They will look ghastly, but authorities are quick to explain that it’s not the fault of the kids -- the people who administer the tests are “raising the bar.” Therefore the kids are actually doing just as well so not to worry. (Marriage is just a piece of paper, kid -- like your diploma.)

Another of these surveys says that college has now devolved into what a lot of people thought high school was, a sort of respite before the real world, except college is for rich people’s kids so they can enjoy it even longer. The idea is that youth is precious, admirable, bursting with joy and beer and sex and oh-how-can-you-deny-it-to-them? And that’s just the girls! These kids can do homework later alongside their own kids.

Why was I so serious! I shoulda lightened up! The survey asked me, "What was the worst part of your NU experience?" I answered honestly: Trying to learn to swim. I nearly drowned. If I'd lightened up, I might have floated!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your "commodified education" is well said. In dealing with my own alma mater, it saddens me to see the beaurocracy and commercial thinking that attends their fund raising--and it is a state institution. Thanks for the giggle at the end!
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