Friday, May 13, 2011

‘Til Death Do Us Part

John N. Gardner

This blog is written at the end of the first day of a two day reunion I am having with two of my best friends from college. I met both 50 years ago this fall when I was an entering freshman. One of these two has a terminal illness. The other has had a life threatening illness and is doing much better than the aforementioned friend. I love these two guys “’till death do us part”. We decided recently that given the deteriorating prognosis for one of these guys that the three of us ought to get together soon while we still could. This experience is instructive

So, what are the lessons? Some are:

1. The college experience that I and other middle class American late adolescents in the last two quarters of the 20th century had was powerful and of lifelong influence.
2. It was life transforming.
3. The most powerful influences in it were other students.
4. It fostered the establishment of lifelong relationships.
5. Those relationships are as important as any in our lives.
6. They matter more than the deals we have cut and the money we have made.
7. They are priceless.
8. I am really bonded to these guys, and some women of the same time period too. 
9. For us it is truly “’til death do us part”
10. The college experience in America is now drastically different for the overwhelming majority of college students who do not go to one place and stay four years, who do not live on campus, who do not become active alumni, who do not stay in touch, and who do not come back for homecoming and other reunions.
11. I would like to say that experience is not better or worse, just different from my own.
12. But in my most honest moments I know I was privileged to have been able to experience college in a way that would make possible these bonds that last til death do us part. And I know that as the American middle class shrinks, and the kind of college experience I had becomes less and less possible for more and more students, I really do believe what they will receive instead is truly inferior.
13. I am saddened by this.
14. So I have to do as much as I can in my own professional work time remaining to insure that the normative college experience (e.g. for commuting, transfer students) is still as powerful and life transforming as we higher education social engineering change agents can make it.
15. My life is greatly richer, deeper, better, because I have had these relationships til death do us part.
16. I am so thankful for them, and for all the circumstances, both familial and cultural, that made these experiences possible for me. In truth, these advantages were accidents of fate, but I certainly made the most of them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Joining the Students for their “Journey”

John N. Gardner

When I was an undergraduate, I discovered the discipline of English in my senior year. What a shame. I swear: had I taken the two profs I took for English in my senior year in my first-year instead, I would have become one of those English majors that Garrison Keillor talks about so fondly.
One of the many things I remember was the idea of having a novel’s protagonist engaged in a “journey” was a central motif of literature, not only our own, but other cultures as well, whether we were talking about the Odyssey or Huck Finn.  Same basic idea: individual growth and change while being tested during a journey.
Yesterday, my wife and I both went for a routine periodic check up with our new physician. He is new because the one we had had for nearly a decade moved out of our area and we very luckily were referred to a gentleman who strikes us as a real winner.
So my new doctor told me not once, but twice yesterday that what gives him such great meaning about his practice of medicine is the opportunity and the experience of being part of peoples’ “journey”. And he told me he would be there for me on my journey. I wanted to hear that and I needed to hear that as much at age 67 as I did at age 17 when I started college.
So this made me think: what would be the impact on our entering college students of today if we more consciously used this ancient metaphor of the journey, and just said to them, preferably repeatedly, that we were committed to being a part of their journey?
This reminded me of why so many college students like (me) to come back at Homecoming: not only to catch up with friends, but to see the faculty who told them long ago they were part of their journey.