How We Were

Before Night Fell

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For military buffs, I´d like to recommend This is What Hell Looks Like, by my friend Stu Steinberg. Stu, a natural and engaging writer, spent two tours in Nam in EOD, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, a job which ought to have its own entry in the DSM IV. It is a (very) dangerous specialty, blowing up mines and booby traps, and seldom mentioned in the literature. His account of a covered-up nerve-gas accident at Dugway in Utah that killed a bazillion sheep is worth the price by itself.

In 1964 Hampden-Sydney College, in Southside Virginia, was fairly typical of American schools and particularly of the small, good Sothern schools of the region: Randolph-Macon College for men in Ashland, co-ed William and Mary in Williamsburg, and Randolph-Macon Women´s College in Lynchburg among others.

H-S, as we called it, was entirely male, both as to students and professors. This had the great advantage that we could concentrate on the job at hand, as for example learning things, instead of pondering the young lovely at the next desk. These latter were available at Longwood State Teachers College (now of course Longwood University), seven miles away.

Hampden-Sydney was not MIT. Average SATs were perhaps 1150 if memory serves. The students were chiefly drawn from the small and pleasant towns of rural Virginia, and would go on to become doctors, attorneys, and businessmen. Yet H-S embodied (and may still) a, by today´s standards, a remarkable philosophy of education, and showed that reasonably but not appallingly bright young can be educated. So did most colleges.

It was then believed that higher education was for the intelligent and the prepared, for no more than the upper twenty percent, perhaps fifteen ore even ten percent of graduates of high school.

At Hampden-Sydney, “Prepared” meant “prepared.” It was assumed that students could read perfectly and knew algebra cold. There were no remedial courses. The idea would have been thought ridiculous if anyone had thought it at all. If you needed remediation, you belonged somewhere else. Colleges were not holding tanks for the mildly retarded.

The purpose of a college, it was then thought was to turn college boys—we were then called “college boys” and “college girls”—into educated young adults. Part of this meant that we should act like adults, which meant as ladies and gentlemen. This concept, currently regarded as odd and even inauthentic, meant deploying good manners when appropriate, not dressing like the contents of an industrial dumpster, and avoiding in mixed company the constant use of sexual reference in words of few letters.

Hampden-Sydney then provided a liberal education, which is simply to say an education, everything else being vocational training. A belief seldom stated but firmly held was that if you didn´t have a reasonable familiarity with literature, history, the arts and sciences and the like, you belonged to a lower order of existence. College should provide the familiarity. The faculty believed that teenagers, which most of us were, didn´t know enough to decide in what education consisted, or what we needed to learn, so there were a great many required courses. These varied between BA and BS programs,  but, for example, a student majoring in history took two years each of two languages, one of them ancient (Latin or Greek), surveys of philosophy, art, a math course, and two of the sciences.

The latter were not Football Physics or Chemistry for Cretins. They were the same courses the science majors took.

The students were then all white and so could be graded on their academic performance.  Rigor was considerable. I can still read French after two years with Dr. Albert Leduc who, judging by the workload he imposed, we suspected of being a sadist who spent his spare time pulling the wings from flies. Freshman chemistry amounted to P-chem lite, heavy on quantum theory and endless, endless, endless solution of laboratory problems of the sort encountered in the real world. It was hard. A remedial student would not have lasted thirty seconds.

Such was schooling in 1964. Then came the Sixties, which actually started in mid-decade and didn´t have their full effect for some time. But everything changed.

A proletarian egalitarianism emerged across the country, urging that everyone should go to college. A tidal wave of the dim and unready washed onto campuses. To facilitate their entry, admission standards had to be lowered and, to keep them in, academic standards. Colleges, which began calling themselves “universities,” discovered that there was money in these unstudents, and expanded to house more of them. (The students ceased to be college kids and became “men” and “women,” while increasingly acting like children.) To recruit politically desirable black students, affirmative action arose and, when these recruits sank to the bottom, “black studies” were instituted, having no definable standards and teaching nothing. “Women´s Studies” followed, allowing girls who lacked scholarly interests to enjoy indignation without suffering the unaccustomed pangs of thought. These quickly became departments of virtuous hostility to men and whites (for who is more sexist than a feminist, or more racist than a black?)

Since these young generally lacked either the curiosity or acuity for genuine studies, they wanted to be amused. Courses entitled The Transcendentalists of New England or Europe from 1926 were too boring, assuming that the purported students had heard of Transcendentalism or Europe, so they demanded and got The History of the Comic Book in American Culture. Such courses amounted to Remedial Sandbox, but sounded like college courses. It was enough.

These enlarged children were paying for college, or at least their fathers were, and they wanted value for money. That meant grades. Soon everybody was getting As and Bs. What they were not getting was an education but since they didn´t know what one was, they didn´t notice. They called themselves men and women, without behaving as such, but that was close enough. They attended a College-Shaped Place, so they figured they must be going to college, and they got great grades, so they must be learning something.

Those in the Victims Studies departments rejoiced in extended adolescent rebellion against their parents while engaging in disguised indolence, thus joining the historically comic class of the pampered and bored who imagine themselves  as being in some vanguard or other.

Thus died American education. A few outposts remained, and remain, but very few. Men and women of my age are the last fully schooled generation.  What are we to feel other than contempt for these intellectually bedraggled victims, not of their beloved sexism and racism but of a demented egalitarianism that thinks that pretending that everyone is educated is better than allowing those capable of it to be so. How much sense does this make?

(In possible defense of my alma mater, let me add that I do not know to what extent, if at all, the aforementioned decay has affected H-S. Less than anywhere else would be my guess.)

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