I May Have Been a History Major and All…

June 12, 2008

…but even I can do basic math.

Voila a barely legible phone photo from a sports bar menu in Atlanta.

$5.00 for a large and $7.50 for a small?  I showed them.  I ordered two smalls.

I figure I’ll make it up in volume.  My tummy doesn’t feel too good, though.


Navel Gazing My Way Through My Past

November 12, 2007

Last week I flew to California to celebrate the wedding of my college roommate with about 20 of our old friends and take in a college football game. It was great to see my college buddies and catch up with what they’ve been up to over the almost twenty years since I graduated. The addition of spouses and children really added a sharp kick of reality to the proceedings, but it was fun to see little xeroxes of my friends running around chasing frisbees and footballs while the adults reminisced.

I have returned to Stanford many times since graduation, but for the first time this trip I was struck by some strong pangs of regret. Don’t get me wrong. I was also filled with pride to be associated with the good works that are coming out of that institution. As I walked around campus it was easy to see the investments that are being made in cutting-edge thinking on issues of environmentalism, sustainability, materials science, computer science, entrepreneurship and medicine. My regret stemmed from the fact that I didn’t take better advantage of my time there.

I wouldn’t trade my college years for the world. California was the fine grit sandpaper that rounded off the edges of a reactionary redneck Reagan Republican teenager by exposing me to issues, new ways of thinking and, most importantly, people that I had never encountered in my provincial past. Some things have taken several decades to get through my thick skull, but I think I’ve come a long way from the dumbass who hung a rebel flag in his freshman dorm room. In a dorm that adjoined Ujamaa, the African American Studies theme House.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But I wish that I had focused more on my academic experience. Sure, I graduated with Honors in History, but I only became a History major after running smack dab into Linear Algebra and Organic Chemistry in the same academic quarter. Faced with the grueling grind of a “techie” curriculum ahead of me, I realized that because I had taken the History track of the required freshman Western Civilization courses, it turned out that I was already almost 1/3 of the way to satisfying the requirements of a History major. Suddenly, Ta-daah, I was a member of an academic department.

I guess it’s normal not to remember many details of your coursework, unless you are supposed to be building bridges or performing brain surgery. But I find I can’t remember much at all about my academic experience, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a single professor who remembered me five years after I graduated.

I was more focused on the interpersonal experiences of college life: the parties, late night discussions about music and politics in the hallways of the dorm, attending sporting events and soaking up all the entertainment opportunities that being a twenty-something in the Bay Area had to offer. Again, it was an amazing experience I recognize that I was blessed.

On the whole, I skated through academically. I rarely started studying before midnight, partially because I didn’t want to miss out on what was going on in the various rooms of my dormmates and also because I felt it was important to project some effortless image of never needing to crack the books when anybody was actually watching. I took classes on Zen Buddhism, Human Sexuality, Automotive Technology, Astronomy, Windsurfing, Sailing, Golf, Tennis and Volleyball.

I signed up for a lot of hours every quarter, so I found myself finished with all my graduation requirements with two quarters left in my senior year. Did I take advantage of these six months to stretch myself in new academic directions or begin graduate studies? No. I stayed up later every night, rolling out of bed just in time for lunch, taking my food tray back up to my room to watch CHiPs, Love Boat and Fantasy Island every afternoon. Then I’d usually fix myself a pitcher of lemonade and Southern Comfort and pretend that I was some sort of a charming Tennessee Williamseque alcoholic writer while I worked on my honors thesis for a couple hours.

What a waste! By being so academically lazy, I denied myself the opportunity to possibly discover something that really moved me or that I was really good at. Those two “gut” classes in Automotive Technology and Astronomy? They were actually very rigorous courses taught under the auspices of the Engineering and Applied Physics departments, and I enjoyed them immensely. They were also the only two A+’s that I earned during my college career.

But did I pursue them? Did I try to explore areas of academia that were foreign to me or that stimulated me? No. Instead I retreated back to the world of the 15 page paper where if you could write persuasively and stick to your thesis, you could pretty much coast by with an A- in just about every History class without cracking half the books on the reading list.

I never took a single creative writing class to learn to use this gift of gab for good instead of mediocrity. I didn’t even take any classes in the English department at all, denying myself access to the incredibly talented and passionate instructors that I heard all my “fuzzy major” friends rave about.

What the hell was wrong with me?! I realize with profound regret that I could have written for the humor magazine and hung out with some of the funniest, most entertaining people I have ever met. You’ve heard of them. Their names roll up the screen at the end of “The Simpsons” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”

Instead, I passed my days buying history books which still reside in boxes in my basement, their virginal spines unbroken despite several moves from house to house. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read five historical books for pleasure since I graduated eighteen years ago. What makes me think that now I’m finally going to bust the hymen on “Labor Unions and Economic Determinism in Brazil and South Africa Between the World Wars?” Oh wait, I wrote that one. It was my honors thesis. Now I know I won’t be reading it. Unless I forget to refill my Ambien prescription.

Obviously, I’ve lost some of that ability to stick to my thesis. Now I write to entertain myself and possibly a few deranged feed-reader readers. I just wish I’d started earlier.

Stanford was a gift that I should have embraced and squeezed every bit of opportunity out of. Then I could have shared it with others instead of just looking back with regret. Actually, it’s not even regret. It’s full-on remorse, because that implies a sense of guilty responsibility and a greater feeling of personal pain and anguish. I have nobody to blame but myself.

Sorry about that $80 grand in tuition, Dad. It was really more like a cover charge.

This is My Education Plan, and I’m Asking for Your Vote

August 2, 2007

I was a History major in college.  If you’re planning to get a degree in History, I believe you should be allowed to graduate with a C average.

Civil engineering?  Not so much.

I Wouldn’t Give You Four Nickels for Your Paradigms

May 30, 2007

KTK over at Lean Left has an interesting perspective on the concept of liberal and/or conservative indoctrination at college campuses.  I always subscribe to the notion that there is a time for everything…and that time is called college.

When receptive, sponge-like minds are exposed to new ideas, concepts, people, music and drugs they tend to soak up things faster than they can actually process them.  Which is why a lot of people are just now coming around to the fact that no matter how much fun it was to go to a Grateful Dead show and collect and trade all the tapes of the shows you couldn’t actually get to, they really never were that great of a band.  In fact, the entertainment factor was usually external to the stage or internal to your own brain.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But at a certain point, it is important to give up the delusions of what you experienced in college and instead use what you “learned” to form your own opinions and establish your own standard of ethics by which you will live.  Anyone who is willing to be “indoctrinated” has completely missed the point of higher education whether it be from the right or the left.

I went to a college which is widely considered to be pretty left-wing.  The president while I was a student was an cabinet member in the Carter  administration.  We had our share of Tiananmen Square sympathy sit-ins and anti-apartheid protests during a time when we felt like we were really participating in social change.  Hell, the Berlin Wall fell during my senior year and we thought that we had materially contributed to ending the arms race.  In truth, we were just around when the deficit spending of the Reagan administration bankrupted the Socialist state through military escalation.

Ironically, the architects of this exact plan were also on my campus at the same time.  The Hoover Institution is known as one of the premier conservative think tanks in the world and was filled with Reagan cronies.  We used to see George Schultz (not Charlie Brown’s dad) walking out in his bathrobe and slippers to pick up his newspaper every morning.  Occasionally he would wave hello at Edward Teller as he was making his morning rounds of campus.  “Morning, Ed.  Nice H-bomb you invented.”

My point is that in an ideal academic environment, there has to be room to present many paths to history.  It is the responsibility of the educators to explain that their opinions are merely paradigms, not necessarily truths.  The onus of the educated is to take these lenses and view the world through them, and then to interpret what they see.

I was lucky to take Poli Sci 101 from an avowed Marxist.*  He is best known for writing a book which looked at our Founding Fathers as a bunch of landed gentry who created the United States as a mechanism to maintain their “republican (little “r”) aristocracy” under the guise of a pluralistic society.

I’d say he was not normally the guy you would choose to teach your entry-level American Government class.  But my university had the guts to send him out there to mold our soft little minds.  He didn’t expect us to agree with everything he said.  He knew we had already been taught the basics of civics in high school, so rote memorization was unnecessary.  But his perspective on how the world worked warped my mind better than any ten minute Jerry Garcia guitar noodling solo.

If you simply regurgitated back what he said onto a blue book, you got a C-.  If you actually formulated a thoughtful opinion which took into account that there aren’t necessarily any certainties in liberal (small “l”) ideals, then you actually got a grade based on how well you interpreted what you learned and how well you expressed it.

So I have no fear of indoctrination.  I’m afraid of people who allow themselves to be indoctrinated.  Grape Flavor-Aid, anyone?

* My favorite story from Prof Manley’s class was when somebody tried to catch him in an inconsistency.  At the end of a lecture when he asked for questions, a cocky young fellow stood up and said, “Yeah.  I got a question for you.  I noticed when I was walking to class that you drove up in a brand new Mercedes, Professor Manley.  Now how the hell can you justify that within your Marxist/Socialist paradigm?!”

Manley didn’t miss a beat.  “I think everyone should drive a new Mercedes.”