The College Years

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms

In the fall of 1960 I became a freshman at Grinnell College. The class of ’64 went on to win a spotty reputation as perhaps the most talented but troublesome classes in college history. The 1960s were a turbulent time in higher education all across the nation.

Those years, for me, were amazingly transformative. I entered that period as a provincial, shy, sanctimonious kid from a small Iowa town. I was some sort of Republican, a passive sort of Christian. I was also a prig who was offended by folks who smoked, drank alcohol, had sex out of wedlock or swore. I had terrible study habits and little discipline. My first crisis was discovering whether I was equal to the challenge of college coursework. I spent my freshman year in terror of flunking out.

Even the simple business of living in a dorm was threatening for me. In high school I avoided two kinds of people: the boys and the girls. At Grinnell I was obliged to live in a dormitory with 30 young men whom I did not know. I soon learned my dorm buddies farted, got drunk and hosed each other down with language so vulgar I didn’t know what the words meant. For a while I wondered if I might be gay because the guys around me were so crude and aggressive that I felt I belonged to a different species.

Grinnell shocked me in good ways, too. I had lived 18 years of my life totally ignorant of the complex delights of classical music. The college offered live concerts with music so powerful it sometimes reduced me to tears. Among my dorm mates were guys who played folk guitar and bluegrass banjo. I fell in love with that until music was so important I couldn’t imagine having lived without it.

Something similar happened with respect to the world of books, social debates, historical dilemmas, appreciation of visual arts, and many other areas. Because Grinnell was so isolated (“in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cornfields”) the college tried hard to import exciting speakers and artists. Attending lectures on fascinating topics was free and easy: all one had to do was show up and listen. I found out I cared about ideas and history and art to a degree I had not known was possible.

The kid who left Grinnell four years later was very little like the kid who showed up in 1960. I’m convinced that all of us change, and in fact we change every year we are alive. But some changes are vastly more significant than others, and my Grinnell years were that.

What about you? If you attended college, what did the experience mean to you?

35 thoughts on “The College Years”

  1. College was probably where I first understood the phenomenon of “little fish in big pond” vs. “big fish in little pond” – that I was more noticeable for my skills and smarts in a group of several hundred than in a group of 10s of thousands. Will elaborate later…

    A corollary question for me would be: After leaving home, in what setting did you learn the most about yourself?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. i came out of catholic school and thecordoroys and tie on 8 year olds and into modular scheduling and open life style and choice in the 60’s revolution beginning in 7th grade. i hate complained about the nuns and catholic school issues during 2nd 3rd and 4th grade and when the nuns flunked my sister in second grade 3 years behind me my folks got upset and wanted to pull everyone out
    i stayed an extra year and then entered jr high with all the neighborhood kids started smoking cigarettes and being cool and going to protests at the u of m getting into the whole emerging world of the 60’s
    i took up guitar got to be in choir and found out it is possible anything and everything on the plate all at once and without checking to see if it’s ok
    by high school i had plans to leave my options open and with modular scheduling it was possible to study twice as many courses as were normal so in addition math english history science i was able to take philosophy, journalism art music german sociology photography debate theater and the summer between 9th and 10th grade i got invite to be the lead singer in a rock and roll band with a spiritual leader who was a guy who got it and made us way ahead of our time as far as political and social statements
    i wanted to be ready for science medicine law school and or whatever else i chose. i had excellent advisors who helped with my schitzo class selection.
    when i graduated high school i had decided to take a year and. choose after a year of travel. after traveling i came back to minneapolis and studied art and music at u of m learned car mechanics and got to know my dad by joining him in business
    i ended up falling in love with sales really appreciating music and art and doing enough mechanics to get into trouble with thinking i can repair stuff
    i learned to shuffle and prioritize early and how to get by
    maybe the disapline is missing but i got what i asked for and have learned to be the captain of my own ship. i never went to college but would never let my kids miss the college years for maturing. i feel like kids today are much more sheltered than we were and their ability to make life decisions are in a different place than we were dealing with
    maybe like grinell in the old days
    my kids don’t fart either
    we used to light em on fire

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I actually have way too much to say about my college experience to trust it to voice recognition. Suffice it to say I went to college twice, once as a young person on my parents bill and once as an adult, putting myself through school while working full-time. Not sure where I learned the most or what it meant to me other than the first time I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do and the second time I was doing it because I needed a piece of paper. Not sure either of those are the best reason to go to college.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “Needed a piece of paper”.
      Every so often you’ll find someone who will honestly tell you, “You’re here only because you need that piece of paper”. But beyond that, there is so much more to gain from the experience.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I was very lucky. When I went back to school to get that piece of paper I discovered Metro State. This was back in the days where everyone had to build their own degree from the bottom up, they didn’t have pre-programmed degrees. This meant that I did spend my final college years taking all kinds of things that interested me and not taking anything that didn’t interest me. That’s how you end up with a BA in Liberal Studies and also it’s how you end up the valedictorian of your class.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Okay that turned out to sound differently than I meant it to. But I have always credited the fact that I ended up at the top of my class to the fact that I only took stuff that I liked and I didn’t have to take anything that I didn’t.

          Liked by 3 people

    2. I used to be a college academic adviser. The kids assigned to me assumed I was there to keep pressure on them to stay in school and do well. Actually, I found I kept telling kids to go away for a while and try to figure out who they were and what they wanted to do. If they were making progress on that in school (this was the U of MN, by the way) that was cool. But a lot of them were marking time and going nowhere.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My best friend in HS was Pete. He moved away and started college that fall. I stayed on the farm thinking I didn’t need college. My folks sort of asked about college but didn’t push it.
    And whenever I’d meet Pete after that, he was the dorm kid who farted and got drunk and all the stuff Steve said. And I was the farm kid who was working and had a job.

    Taking classes now is much more fulfilling to myself. I’m here because the classes I take are things I’m interested in. (Did I tell you some of the other kids in the English class said I must be rich because I used ‘Fancy paper’ when I printed something out. It’s just plain old copier paper, but it must be a heavier weight than they use. Therefore I was ‘rich’. Ha! Kids… you’re so young!).

    I learned a lot when I started doing theater. That’s where I “grew up”. Those were the people who taught me about smoking dope and drinking and two of them in particular are the ones who introduced me to the strip club on Broadway.
    Quite the experience for this farm boy.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Just last year I finally declared a liberal arts major. So I have the plan and all that. If, at some point, I get enough credits for a degree, all’s the better. But still, this is supposed to be fun. I suppose some day it wouldn’t HURT to have a piece of paper…

        (I have no degree’s at this point. Never went to college. Shhh, don’t tell my administration!)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Congratulations, Ben, for seeking knowledge. It is funny. Many kids are in college to get the paper, although they won’t mind improving their minds. You are studying to improve your mind, although you wouldn’t mind getting the paper. I like your priorities.

          Liked by 3 people

  5. What a difference a few years make. I was twenty-five years old before I entered college in the fall of 1968, and it was obvious to me that I had many advantages over my eighteen year old fellow freshmen. For one thing, I was already married, so I didn’t have to live in a dormitory with its many distractions. For another, I was more mature and ready to learn.

    But there were drawbacks to that later entry, as well. Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy earlier in the year, civil unrest was widespread across the nation. Demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, though mostly peaceful, created conflict among students, faculty and the locals. But when the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August erupted in violence, it set the tenor for the protests to come. My first two years at SIU were significantly impacted by the growing anti-war movement which you could simply not ignore. Subsequent to the shootings at Kent State in the spring of 1970, demonstrations in Carbondale turned into riots. Buildings were burned, virtually every single window in the downtown storefronts were smashed, and the National Guard was called in. When the demonstrations persisted, a curfew was imposed and tear gas deployed to disburse the crowds. It was not an environment conducive to studying. After five days of violent clashes between students and the National Guard, the university was shut down for the remainder of the spring quarter. That was the end of my sophomore year.

    Looking back, I’m amazed that despite the political turmoil of my first two years in college, and the personal upheavals during the last two, that I managed to make it through and still retain a lot of fond memories of the time. I attribute that to the resilience of the human spirit.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great comment, PJ.

      When I was an adviser I strongly believed that being away from school a while was a good strategy, for the students who had taken a break from school were much more likely to appreciate coursework when they came back to school. Of course, it isn’t that simple, but kids grow up a LOT in the first year, two years or three years after high school. Or that’s what I kept seeing. Kids who went straight from high school to college often didn’t make that jump in maturity.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. One thing you haven’t mentioned, Steve, was that for males at that time if you took a year off to find yourself and grow up, you were likely to find yourself in Vietnam.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. That’s a great point, Bill. Keeping out of Vietnam was one of the reasons I stayed in grad school so long. I didn’t mention it today because the conversations I had with young men simply didn’t involve that issue. Maybe the kids involved had safe draft numbers?

          I have strong memories of what it was like to fear being sucked into that war. I’m quite sure younger people will never fully appreciate what that was like and how that affected those who were vulnerable to being drafted. If you didn’t go through that experience, you’ll never quite understand what it was like.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I was in college mostly for the piece of paper, and to please my dad, a guidance counselor who seemed to think you couldn’t succeed in the world without college. It took me till my junior year to discover that I could pursue subjects that I liked and excelled in (music, anthropology), and I ended up with a teaching degree and a music minor.

    It seems not that I needed to spend the summer between my junior and senior year in San Francisco to broaden my horizons. I went back there after graduating, and that’s when I started what I consider my road to self-discovery. Took living on both coasts to find I loved the Midwest. Took trying out teaching and misc. office work to find that my real love was working in bookstores, and helping people organize. Found I could lead in certain settings… still exploring.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. My most recent college experience was when I was a much older age than Steve at Grinnell or PJ at SIU. It was life-changing despite the fact that I dropped out after two semesters and still have tons to learn. I learned a lot about the technical side of photography that I didn’t know before, but what was most important was learning to focus on my subject and how to compose and to find my “voice” and unique vision and way of seeing things through photography – something I’m still learning and will continue to learn as long as I can see well enough to take pictures.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Good for you, ljb. I’m a great believer in life-long learning. When you learn because you’re passionate about your subject rather than because it fulfills a requirement for graduation, it’s not only a lot more pleasurable, but, as vs observed above, you retain the knowledge much better. Of course, at this point of our lives, most of us know that most learning takes place in the laboratory we call life, and not in a classroom or a lecture hall.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. You were uniquely and deeply motivated to learn, ljb. Nothing favors actual learning as much as that. As a former college teacher I can say the presence of just one or two students like that is powerful motivation to teach well.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t go to college and segued from high school to the working world without much change to my inner life. Working was very much like going to high school, except you got a paycheck for it, for which I was grateful.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Linda, you’re such a breath of fresh air. I love you for your wisdom, and quiet whack upside the head. Of course you don’t need a college degree to succeed in life. And a degree, any degree, doesn’t prove you’re smart or wise. We need to trust our innate abilities and make the most of them, however we choose.

      Liked by 2 people

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