COLLEGE DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY

This is a two-part story that shows what college is really like and how you can learn from the bad parts. Please comment nicely!

PART ONE: Life Is Not Fair

When I was in high school I had a teacher named Mr. Gilbert. He was a math teacher and I hated math. I didn't like Mr. Gilbert much either. But he said something that stuck with me.

A bunch of us were doing a tough geometry problem, and Mr. Gilbert had to go over it three times before we finally got it. When we did get it he said, "That just shows how lucky you are to be in high school, because when you get to college the instructor will only show you the answer once. And if you don't get it, too bad."

At the time I didn't take him too seriously. Teachers are always trying to look more heroic than they really are. I figured I was never going to take math in college anyway, and I never did.

But looking back, I see now that Mr. Gilbert is the only adult I ever met who was honest with me about college. I went to Columbia, an Ivy League school, and I never met a single professor who cared whether students did well in class or not. All of them had office hours when you could see them, but none of them ever encouraged us to ask for extra help. And they certainly never showed any concern for students who were struggling.

When I was a sophomore at Columbia I took a course on 18th century literature, mostly essays by Samuel Johnson. The professor was a bright young instructor I'll call Barbara Villiers. Well, one day I had to go to office hours in Hamilton Hall to get her to approve a topic for a paper I had to write.

There was a guy ahead of me, someone who lived in on my floor in Livingston Hall. This guy was part of a crowd who kept me up every night playing poker in the common room, or kicking a football up and down the hall. I knew him and I hated his guts.

Not that I was a snoop, but sitting outside I could hear every word Barbara Villiers said to this fellow. And it quickly became very clear that he had no idea what sort of paper he was going to write. He had no interest in the subject and couldn't identify a single essay that he had actually read. When the professor gave him a quote to identify, he took a wild guess and named an essay on a totally unrelated topic. At that point there was an icy silence.

Now I really expected the bright young professor to chew this guy out. I thought she would tell him he had to do the reading or he would fail. I thought she would ask him why he bothered to take a class like this one, or even why he bothered to go to Columbia.

But you know what Barbara Villiers said? She said nothing. She just told him to choose a topic and he left. Then it was my turn. I was eager to show that I had done all the reading, and we had a very productive conversation. But at no point did the professor say she was impressed with my work. She didn't say that I was a hard-working student and that she appreciated my efforts. She didn't even ask me about my career goals or my future plans!

I felt totally let down that day. I felt like the instructor had let me down, and I felt like Columbia had let me down. What was the point of working so hard if the professors didn't care? Why was I trying to set myself apart when it made no difference to anyone?

A few years after I graduated, I wrote Barbara Villiers a letter telling her about what had happened and how disappointed I was. At the time I was serving in the Marines, and I was very bitter that my degree had opened so few doors for a person like me. I was hoping the professor would show some personal concern for me. But all I got was a perfunctory letter written by the department secretary saying that the professor was no longer at Columbia and had no desire to discuss my undergraduate experience.

Today I am still angry at Columbia. For nearly forty years I have written every faculty member and administrator I could locate, trying to explain how empty and unsatisfying my undergraduate experience really was. But nobody seems to care. I guess Mr. Gilbert was right. College doesn't work that way.

Next: People Can Change