Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

Great Books

Today I read an internet message board about law schools in which the poster fretted out loud that since s/he had taken all his/her courses on a pass/fail basis, s/he feared a negative impact on the law school admission process. I resisted the urge to ask the raspy, practical question "didn't you imagine when you began that you might want grades for professional or graduate school?", and instead began to daydream about a Great Books Program.



The plot in the Gurdonark life gelled in little towns in the non-touristed parts of Arkansas. I went to high school in one town (population 2,000) for my freshman and sophomore year and in another town (population 16,000) for my junior and senior year. The first town I use as the basis for my LiveJournal handle. The second town was the town in which my parents also went to high school.

I went to elementary school in the 1960s, a time when school integration, aided by a series of ever-advancing court decisions, slowly took place (in line with the ironic phrase "all deliberate speed" from the Brown decision).

I developed some prejudices about schools arising from my observations in that era. Prior to school integration, rural parochial schools were essentially unknown. After full integration began, when I was in fifth grade (prior to that time, we had a form called "individual option", which meant roughly that a handful of African-American kids could opt to attend white schools), a number of "religious" schools arose. Certain white parents found that the schools were corrupted by secularism, roughly at about the same time that their kids were called upon to attend schools run on a more egalitarian model that integration brought. A number of rural church-run schools arose, largely as a matter of "white flight". Most of these schools, founded on the basis of theory rather than practicality, foundered economically and academically. I came to see "church school" as a code name for "white flight school", though, due to the way that the only private schools in our area were created to conveniently avoid integration.

We did not have a "church school" in Gurdon, and we did not attend the "church school" when we moved to the metropolis of Camden. We attended the public schools, where I found my education quite serviceable. Only when I entered college, and had folks in the dorm from Little Rock's Catholic High School, did I find that "parochial school" could mean a more rigorous education than the solid but not challenging education I received. Stated simply, those Catholic High kids knew calculus, when I barely knew trigonometry. I have always felt that I wear the scarlet letter "A" on my forehead, with the "A" standing for "Awful at Math". Only in law, where I can wow the crowds with feats of multiplication and routine accounting in my head, does the "A" resolve into a nice pyramid of higher insight.

I've always been thankful that I went to school in places in which nobody feared to teach the theory of evolution, and nobody was forced to pray in class. I have nothing against folks of other viewpoints, but I am all for a tolerant, open approach to matters of science and faith.

My education, though, lacked in "great books". We read the kind of novels people read in school, of course, "A Farewell to Arms" and "1984". I've always been a voracious reader, admixing "serious" literature with genre fiction, and later high school was my Solzhenitsyn phase. But I never took on classical literature.
We had the ability to take Latin at my high school, but the teacher was the one with whom I did not do well in math. I graduated devoid of the classics, unless we count those black and white films in physics class with UCLA professor Harvey E. White, whose crewcuts and chipper science experiments surely dated to the time of Livy.

In high school, I was an "honor student", but not valedictorian material. I relied on my fine second-rate mind to get me near the top, but did not perspire enough to ascend the heights. My standardized test scores similarly came out suitably "fine but second rate". My ACT score was a 29, and my SATs a mere 660 verbal/620 math (we did not have the finery of modern scores then).

In my high school class, a number of fellows (fewer of the honor student women, for some reason, were in the same boat) entertained grandiose notions of taking east coast institutions by storm. They applied to the top schools, seeking the imprimatur of genius that only an Amherst admit can provide. We had all heard that people from far-flung regions such as Arkansas got a "diversity" boost in places like Boston and Hartford. But to a man, none of them got into the top notch schools to which they aspired. They instead won full scholarships to estimable but lesser schools like Baylor University or to near-local schools like Ouachita Baptist University (a church school which, curiously, apparently, based on scholarships offered, tried to recruit as many attractive women as possible, seeking a picturesque look based on female beauty). The honor student women in our class, by contrast, only applied to the lesser schools in the first instance, achieving roughly the same academic admittance result with far less agony. The problem for the men, by the way, was apparently that their SAT scores, while workable, were essentially the same "fine but second rate" scores that I had. They were the kind of scores that might get one a scholarship at the local liberal arts schools, but not to Duke or Rice (or of course, Harvard). For a lot of these kids, admission without a scholarship, even in the age of more freely available grants and loans, made a school unattainable.

My father was a country doctor, so that a "need" scholarship to any university was out of the question. My folks were kind enough to pay for my education, too, so that I felt no compunction to go someplace expensive on their nickel. Arkansas' great little liberal arts school, Hendrix College, did not appeal to me, because I had had a cousin go there and transfer after a year or two, finding it uncongenial. Recently that same cousin said he actually liked the place, but wanted to get an engineering degree, so that method of evaluation on my part may have been badly flawed.

I had done a Summer Science Camp in high school at the University of Arkansas, which made the idea of attending there and majoring in physics a "familiar notion", as I knew some physics professors there. My folks would have been just as content to have me attend one of the local small state schools, such as South Arkansas University (home of the Muleriders) or Henderson State University (Ouachita's arch-rival in football). My father, the first in his family to finish college, had attended Tulane, and always felt, I think, like a fish out of water among the city kids there. He did not have any burning desire for me to attend a top university. When an aunt suggested I apply to Rice (to which I could have gained admission, but not a scholarship, in all likelihood), my father's wise comment was "that's hard as hell!". I was a very late bloomer in almost every way, and the thinking was that I might do best in a less rigorous climate.
I still like to think of myself as an Autumn flower who withstands a lot of Winter, although I decline to thereby align myself with the "pansy".

After my standardized test scores came in, I got flyers from the sundry schools which send flyers to anyone with an ACT score over x.
I really liked the look of Sherman, Texas' Austin College, a congential small liberal arts school which runs pre-professionao programs for lawyers, doctors and preachers, among others, as well as "regular degrees", but my father advised that I either needed to go someplace "really good" or stay in Arkansas. I chose to stay in Arkansas, and enrolled in the University of Arkansas.

All this preamble, though, is beside the real point. I wish to write today about a single piece of junk mail I received. This was the brochure for St. John's University, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. St. John's, with campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, had the "Great Books" program. One begins with the Latin and Greek writers, and then moves up through history. It's a truly liberal arts education. I do not believe that they even have conventional grades. All courses are more or less mandatory. Everyone just reads--and learns from--great books.

I think I am about a dozen Great Books short of a full load. I am sure that there was some crucial moment in my life when I read "Stranger in a Strange Land" when I should have been reading Thucydides.

I remember still reading that brochure about a place where everyone reads great works and has insightful dialogues about them. That was an educational experience I never really had. I took a lot of literature in college--in addition to my physics degree, I am but a few hours shy of enough credits for a dual major in English. I made As at liberal arts courses and Bs and Cs in math and science, so that liberal arts were not only fun but good for my ego.

But when I think of St. John's, I think of a school where people just live and breathe ideas. That's what I wanted college to be, instead of the talk of "keg parties" and who can grow the most mountain-man beard.

Don't get me wrong--my college did right by me. I learned a lot, and some classes featured great discussions of great ideas. I was more than challenged in college. Indeed, I was a second-rate mind, take it all around--"A" in courses with names like "Science Fiction" and "C" in courses with names like "Optics". But my college experience was less like Oxford and more like attending the best pig science school in the south. It was practical with a capital "p". We had the requisite number of aimless liberal arts majors and feckless gradual students. But nobody imagined we were in a Great Books program.

We had no ivy on the outer walls of the physics building at the University of Arkansas. Instead, we were in a cinder-block building down a hill, which was built to hold the HVAC equipment. The building proved inadequate for the massive HVAC stuff, so some wise person rechristened it "physics". The inside walls were gray over which someone had lathered pastel paints. It was, in a word, second world wonderful--kind of like Romania in the Ozarks. I had great professors, many of whom later went on to do real science which you can read about in real science journals. One instead played jazz and wrote the "physics for poets" textbook. He was my adviser my last two years--one of those fellows all the women students have a crush on, not a bad looking fellow with a bit of "hip" about him, and yet one of those "long-haired unattainable" types so at home in university which unattainability, no doubt, explains the infatuations.

I know nothing about this fellow, at all, but this was the era when affairs with professors were a rite of passage for many women rather than the Code of Handbook Rules today. I read a contemporary of mine who wrote an article arguing that current rules against such things over-reach, but I tend to side with the modern rules. But in my college days, "bright women" slept with professors as a matter of course. I suspect this still occurs today, but that everyone is more furtive in their open-ness. My own college life, of course, would have been roughly as likely to involve an affair with a professor as to involve having Comet Kahoutek fall upon my head. They were different times, though.

But I fantasized then, and now, about being in classes with a few hundred fellow seekers. We'd discuss Plato, and epistemology. We'd plumb depths, and unearth secrets and just "be" smarter and worthwhile, somehow. I know, in my heart, that even at St. John's University, kids are kids and kegs are tapped while mindless music plays. But in my mind, I was (and remain) on the outside of some great circle of higher knowledge. Only in recent years have I discounted that circle's actual existence. But the feeling I still feel.

Now I've read many of the books on St. John's "Great Books" reading list, and could no doubt choose to read them all. But it's not the books I mean. It's that sense of shared purpose--of living in an ivory tower, of picking blackberries in an olive grove. That's what we did not have at my college.

Law school, though very practical, was much more like that ideal.
We talked about ideas and notions and the way life ought to work.
I loved law school. But we mostly talked about, well, law. I seriously thought about getting a PhD in English, to seek out that "great books" thing, but I figured out, in the long run, that I am more a practical kind of guy. It's an odd feeling, these years later, to realize that I made the right decision, and that I'm not Plato. But I'm adjusting.

So today I sit here, with my public school education, and my practical professional school degree, and my small-business job, and my five suits in the closet (should be seven, but I'm behind on my shopping, and besides, wear business casual except for court days). I'm happy, I'm well, I'm filled with ideas and fun.

But I hear the distant fife tune of far-off academia, and its tones are measured, receding, and oh, so far away. I'd shed a tear, but I have things to do.
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