Sixty years later, I would still like a do-over. Yes, I went to a school where, to fiddle with the title of Rebecca Gordon's article, the boys were (and only them). I'm talking about Yale College in the 1960s when it was all-male and the hunting (or do I mean haunting?) grounds for George W. Bush, like his father and grandfather before him, and John Kerry among others. Sigh. I fought my parents hard over the decision to go there and lost big time. For them, Yale meant that I would be headed for the stratosphere, just like George and John. I was to be a triumph for a family in which my dad was just emerging from what had, for him, been the tough years of the supposedly golden 1950s.
And yes, I did get a good education. I mean, what else was there for me to do " a Jewish kid at a university that had just removed its informal quota on Jews, and without a girl in sight? It was the rest of the experience, all the fraternities that didn't rush me, the famed secret society, Skull and Bones, that didn't give me a second thought, and all those hotels where you had to put up the girl you invited to New Haven for a partying weekend that cost more than I could afford. (Forget the fact that I didn't exactly have a lot of people to invite.) Well, you know the story. Or maybe, I hope, you don't.
And then, what did I do but wander into the study of Chinese history " not exactly my parents' idea of how to prepare myself for future glory " and never looked back? And so it went in a college world that, as you'll discover today, seems all too impossible even to imagine anymore (and thank god for that!).
All I could think as I read TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon's look at higher education six decades later is that I missed my moment, even if it also seems, as she explains, that the women who now make up the majority of college students may be missing theirs, through no fault of their own. Tom
Fewer Big (or Any Size) Men on Campus
What Does It Mean that Women Now Dominate Higher Education?
In the last week of her life, my mother extracted a promise from me. "Make sure," she said, "that Orion goes to college."
I swore that I would, although I wasn't at all sure how I'd make it happen. Even in the year 2000, average tuitions were almost 10 times what my own undergraduate school had charged 30 years earlier. I knew that sending my nephew to college would cost more money than I'd have when the time came. If he was going to college, like his aunt before him, he'd need financial help. The difference was that his "help" was likely to come not as a grant, but as life-defining loans.
"Orion," by the way, is a pseudonym for my brother's son, my parents' only grandchild. To the extent that any of us placed family hopes in a next generation, he's borne them all. Orion was only five years old when I made that promise and he lived 3,000 miles away in a depressed and depressing de-industrialized town in New York's Hudson River Valley. We'd only met in person once at that point. Over the years, however, we kept in touch by phone, later by text message, and twice he even visited my partner and me in San Francisco.
A little more than a decade after I made that promise, Orion graduated from high school. I thought that with a scholarship, loans, and financial help from his father and us, we might indeed figure out how to pay the staggering costs of a college education, which now averages $35,000 a year, having doubled in this century alone.
It turned out, however, that money wasn't the only obstacle to making good on my promise. There was another catch as well. Orion didn't want to go to college. Certainly, the one guidance counselor at his 1,000-student public high school had made no attempt to encourage either him or, as far as I could tell, many of his classmates to plan for a post-high-school education. But would better academic counseling have made a difference? I doubt it.
A bright boy who had once been an avid reader, Orion was done with schooling by the time he'd turned 18. He made that clear when I visited him for a talk about his future. He had a few ideas about what he might do: join the military or the New York state police. In reality, though, it turned out that he had no serious interest in either of those careers.
He might have been a disaffected student, but he was " and is " a hard worker. Over the next few years, despite sky-high unemployment in the Hudson River Valley, he always had a job. He made and delivered pizzas. He cleaned rooms at a high-end hotel for wealthy equestrians. He did pick-up carpentry. And then he met an older tradesman who gave him an informal apprenticeship in laying floors and setting tile. Orion learned how to piece together hardwood and install carpeting. He proudly showed me photos of the floors he'd laid and the kitchens he'd tiled.
Eventually, he had to part ways with his mentor, who also happened to be a dangerous drunk. We had another talk and I reminded him of my promise to my mother. I'd recently gotten an unexpected windfall " an advance on a book I was writing, American Nuremberg " which put me in a position to help set him up in business. He bought a van, completed his tool set, and paid for a year's insurance. Now, 10 years after graduating from high school, he's making decent money as a respected tradesman and is thinking about marrying his girlfriend. He's made himself a life without ever going to college.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).