I don’t know much about Bowdoin. This seems, unfortunately, to be expected. I like the donor’s response – the president’s petty grandstanding is an overreach that motivates. Smugness enrages.
Today we skim over Longfellow, but once readers looked forward to his next narrative poem as an event. Longfellow also took academia and his languages seriously – developing a modern language program at Bowdoin; Harvard then drew him away to develop a similar program for them and he did. As we read a poem or two, I mention his Morituri Salutamus. Longfellow’s theme is similar but he hasn’t the power of Tennyson’s Ulysses. However this occasional poem is personal; his classmates, the classes of 1824 and 1825, at Bowdoin were some of his closest friends all his life. While he was the most popular American poet, a classmate and friend was Hawthorne. The novelist also remained intensely grateful and loyal to Franklin Pierce; a friendship begun at Bowdoin lasted until Hawthorne’s death. A fourth gained his fame more indirectly: Calvin Stowe’s interest in theology was shared with the famous Beecher family; his wife became a novelist with the broad audience Longfellow found. Clearly all were shaped by those years at Bowdoin.
These years, these moments, are quality time: following a class, walking slowly home, lost in discussion, speculation, and, then, in the work of learning. Colleges are important, still, in those ways. And in fulfilling certain roles. One is in research. My sister and I had a rare talk; she caught me up – describing her group’s research on the aquifer, her husband’s in no-till, her son, but in his second year, on defense projects. Their work changes lives, makes land produce more and better crops. Little is more important. We (people like my husband and I) teach students to connect dots, to look beneath the surface, to consider the great universals and truths of human nature, of the tragic & joyous continuities, each period shaped by its own life. His is research-oriented, mine is not. All of us contribute, all of us touch lives. Defining the good life seldom comes without self-consciousness, without a breadth and depth we get only through reading of other times & places, of others’ passions & experiences. I don’t think we’ve wasted our lives, while granting our work will neither feed the multitudes nor reach into the sky.
True, the future promises a new way of learning. Our on-line classes may yet match expectations with course. This needs tweaking – my evaluations veer from those thankful the class asks much and those who complain they have no time for reading or paper writing, that’s why they took it online. Credentials are debased – but knowledge, well, that remains a true good. MOOCs seem a way to mastery, with or without credentialing. If nothing else, students may notice work correlates with knowledge, and, finally, come to see the mastery, the knowledge, and not the credential as goal.
And I remain nostalgic: walking slowly home and fixing tea and sometimes gin, we’d argue about James and Hawthorne, the sweep of western exploration. I will be very sorry if there is no longer a place that nurtures such friendships. I met my husband in a linguistic class; contemplating the deep structure of language we moved into our own depths (this concept still seems useful if Chomsky’s politics seem certifiable).
So, tomorrow, others will meet and learn through the internet. Maybe that’s better; it will be different. We tend to see the world through our own experience. That can be sentimental. So, let’s pause to respect the old ways of mating & bonding. And feel an anger at those who’ve debased what we once loved.
By the way, anyone interested in the history and breadth of the problems Klingenstein found at Bowdoin might enjoy Bruce Bawer’s The Victims’ Revolution. He covers a lot of depressing ground. And concludes with a moving (if familiar) tribute to what those old lit classes meant to him.
Claire Berlinski reviews Bawer, acknowledges his points but hesitates at his argument’s sweep.
The humanities might learn another lesson from the class of 1825 – writing novels that splendidly understand human nature shouldn’t be confused with political insight. Hawthorne’s “Chiefly About War Matters” may be interesting, but neither it nor his judgements on George Eliot and Margaret Fuller have the depth of The Scarlet Letter – and, certainly, of Lincoln.