You could say that education writing was my first literary love, and my longest.
At one point, I had an idea for publishing an anthology of education writing. “The Sixth Estate,” I was going to call it. The title was somewhat more apropos 25 years ago, when academe — particularly the vast, variegated world of American private higher education, where I logged the bulk of my writing time — truly was a separate estate, beholden for the most part unto itself, comprised of hundreds of different collegiate worlds, each with its individual histories, manners, and mores.
Now, the wall dividing higher education from the rest of American culture is more porous. Student culture has become mass culture, and vice versa; for better or worse, the generation gap of the 1960s and 1970s has been bridged. In today’s broadband world, there is no separate estate anymore, not even beneath the sheltering elms of the most remote, elite American university. And yet to someone from Western Europe, where there are only a handful of colleges and universities in every country, most or all adhering to a state-enforced standard curriculum, the world of American higher education, with its plethora of curricula and judicial codes, as well as anthems, fraternities and sororities, alumni magazines, uniforms and slang, still seems like a different universe. It is.
I lived in and wrote about that universe for the better part of 10 years, hopscotching from campus to campus. It was a great way to extend my own education. It also was a great way to extend my youth. Indeed, you could say that I spent the better part of my 20s hanging out at various colleges and schools while getting paid for it. As the mini-anthology of my best education writing archived herein well demonstrates, I had a lot of fun. Once in a while, I was even able to make a difference.
The first campus I ever investigated (once I finally managed to graduate from it) was my own great, quixotic, yet in many ways seriously defective alma mater, Cornell University, whose unofficial motto used to be “Sink or Swim.” I know — I was one of the students who sank, busting out of Big Red in my sophomore year with a non-existent average before returning and graduating a year late. My checkered college career makes great material for “C-Town Blues,” the comic novel I am now writing, but it wasn’t so much fun at the time. Nor was it for the approximately 10 percent of the student body who, because of Cornell’s then virtually complete lack of concern for the quality of undergraduate life, fell between the cracks and either “stopped out,” dropped out, or, in my extreme case (and I would say that a 0.0 cumulative average is fairly extreme), “busted out.”
The result was “Stopping Out,” the 4,000-word essay about “Cornell’s hidden landscape of academic failure” that I wrote for Cornell Alumni News in 1974. (Those were the days when, thanks to editor John Marcham, the Alumni News considered its function, at least in part, to be a journalistic watchdog for the university.)
The article, in which I traced the breakdown of the university’s former reasonably effective faculty-student advising system (which in turn was caused by the breakdown of the philosophy of in loco avunculus on which it had been based) painted a fairly damning, if accurate, picture of undergraduate life. In a way, it was my equivalent of Zola’s “J’accuse” — a way of speaking truth to power, as well as helping me understand my own experience (as well as why Cornell was probably the worst place for me to enroll as an undergraduate, even though I seem to have gotten my money’s worth out of my hard-earned diploma in the end).
“Stopping Out” helped spur a complete restructuring of the Cornell advising system. It made a lot of people think about what kind of place Cornell was, or ought it to be. It got some people mad. It also inaugurated my career as a freelance education writer.