A fifties education: the college years

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Bernie Sanders did not invent the idea of tuition-free college. I, along with generations of fortunate New York City students were its charmed beneficiaries until budget pressures snuffed it out sometime in the 70s. But while it lasted City College and its sister campuses in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens were the gateway to the American mainstream for generations of Jews and other immigrant populations from families like mine. Irving Howe and others have described the supercharged atmosphere of intellectual ferment that pervaded student life on campus: pitched verbal battles waged across cafeteria tables among factions and splinter groups of socialist and communist organizations; heady literary discussions begun inside Gothic classroom buildings and spilling out onto campus lawns and into student lounges.

In the late 40s, returning WWII veterans on the GI Bill brought a new kind of hunger and worldly wisdom to the ideological and philosophical debates which were still reverberating when I arrived in 1956. Several of my Brooklyn Tech classmates headed out of town – Gordon Bray and Joe DiIorio to Cornell, Robert Cogen also upstate to RPI – but leaving the city was as much of an option for me as joining the French Foreign Legion. It seemed unnatural in the village that was my Brooklyn neighborhood for young people to stray too far from home. My neighborhood buddies were enrolling in Brooklyn College, Brooklyn Polytech, Pratt Institute. One friend whose grades didn’t guarantee automatic admission to the City College system landed at NYU, not yet the flush, prestigious institution it was later to become.

News of my New York State Regents Scholarship reached me via Harry, our nosy mailman, who congratulated me even before I had opened the envelope carrying the good news. It meant $350/year – 500 extra if you majored in engineering – paid directly to you, not to your college, the equivalent today of more than $3,300. Despite the enormous pride my parents took in my scholarship, that money would not stretch then or now to support me at a prestigious private institution like Columbia. Besides, what did that school have that I couldn’t get free at CCNY? Brooklyn College was closer to home, but I was still committed to trudging mindlessly toward that engineering goal, and it was uptown where those studies were concentrated.

So, in the fall of 1956, I began my daily commute, one hour each way, but a straight shot with no train changes. I could park myself on the woven straw benches–seat slashing vandals were not a problem yet – and read without distraction until we pulled into the 137th Street station. And what an education that commute was! I studied the Tourette’s Syndrome shouter who was a regular in my car, the attractive secretaries in their seamed nylons, the garment workers like my father in their open-necked sports shirts, clutching brown lunch bags.

I inhaled mounds of literature on those commutes – Dostoevsky, Proust, Knut Hamsun, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy – and I learned to negotiate the New York Times in tight spaces, folding it vertically, like a highway map so that only one column at a time was visible, then moving on to the next pleat and the next, past news of newly emerging nations, the plight of the Papuan people in New Guinea, my beloved Dodgers before they were transplanted to alien California, the defiance of school desegregation in Little Rock. It was Subway 101 – the study of psychology, literature and political science, an integrated curriculum of life that none of my courses could touch for timeliness and intensity.

In those pre-computer days, registering for classes presented formidable challenges. The courses available for the new semester were chalked up on a string of giant blackboards in a palatial hall in the campus’s main building. As the sections filled, entries disappeared from the board and hopes were dashed for a late sleep-in day, an early afternoon escape from campus, a compressed three-day schedule or the quick completion of the pre-engineering course requirements. Few of us knew individual teachers well enough to build our plans around their classes, and multi-section courses were listed without indication of who was teaching them in any case. We didn’t know the professors and they didn’t know us. We expected nothing different. My years at CCNY were spent in such anonymity that when, nearing graduation,  I needed letters of recommendation for graduate school, I couldn’t find anyone capable of identifying me in a crowd. I asked the great psychologist Kenneth Clark whose Social Psychology course I was taking – my second course with him – for a letter of recommendation. He asked me who I was. Although he didn’t know me, he offered to write after reading my final exam which he did with enough enthusiasm to open some significant doors for me.

Still, as hopelessly mechanical and impersonal the course selection process was, it introduced into my schooling an element of choice which had, until then, been non-existent. In Brooklyn Tech, there were no electives, only requirements. By the time I left City College in 1960, I had sampled courses outside my psychology major like Russian History and Government, Comparative European Literature, 19th century American writers. Aside from adding to my goal of accumulating 128 credits toward graduation, they met no other requirements beyond the nourishment of my soul.

No longer was I supervised and tracked through the school day like a parolee tethered to an electronic ankle bracelet. I went to the classes for which I registered and when the class hour was done, I was free to stroll, head for the Student Center or the library, or board the subway to head home. After years of regimentation, these simple privileges were as heady as winning the lottery. However, if you weren’t organized and clear about your aspirations, this freedom could be your undoing, a lesson many generations of college students have had to learn at great cost.

The Student Center was a unique space on campus. The pool tables were crowded with the silent majority of students not immersed in Marxist dialectics or Faulkner. The bulletin boards were laden with announcements of club meetings, rallies, film showings, lectures. Decades later, when my own daughters were college shopping, I encouraged them to take the pulse of an institution by scanning the bulletin boards for signs of life beyond the classroom. It’s the real test of the vibrancy of a college campus, and City College vibrated at a very high frequency.

Among the notices I came upon was a call for staff to revive The Observation Post, a rival to the main campus daily which had been shut down by the administration the previous year for some political indiscretion. The stew of GI independence and political outspokenness was still operative on campus, and I was drawn the idea of working for a paper that had actually been shut down for its boldness. Besides, with all staff seniority erased by the fresh start, I imagined I could move into a position of responsibility more quickly. It was like being drafted by a cellar-dwelling team where you were assured of more playing time than you would be allotted on a front runner.

The hastily patched together staff spent much of its bizarre initial organizational meeting peering out an office window watching a Harlem tenement lighting up the sky as it was consumed by a spectacular fire whose heat reached us even through the glass panes. It was an auspicious beginning, ripped from the script of a symbol-laden movie. That was as close as we ever came to the anonymous residents of those buildings surrounding the campus. Like so many other urban universities, CCNY remained isolated from its neighbors whose stories never made it into our paper.  During those first few months on staff, I managed to land a few assignments, including one about the alumni office which managed to make it onto the front page, but they never rose above the equivalent of assignments covering town budget committee meetings on small town papers

My involvement with the paper didn’t survive my year away in Israel following freshman year. When I returned, my eyes were facing in a different direction. Hillel House was a beehive of activity, especially on Wednesdays when classes across campus were suspended for the afternoon to allow for meetings of clubs and organizations. This was a clever way to make extracurricular activities accessible to a commuting population not inclined to stay around campus for evening or weekend activities. The couches and folding chairs were occupied by Marxist Zionists, religious Zionists, garden variety kibbutz socialists listening to presentations on life in the collective settlements, Israel’s military preparedness, the role of religion in a secular state. At Hillel I could be together with others who had shared the experience of living in an idealistic new society which made America feel aimless and self-indulgently materialistic. Israel was a cause into which I could pour my considerable adolescent reserves of idealism in a form that met with my parents’ approval.

Since I didn’t go away to college the year in Israel was my maiden voyage away from family and neighborhood. Today, time abroad is almost programmed into college programs. Not so in the straight-on Fifties; everyone was expected to march ahead toward their prescribed professional goal without deviating. For me, the decision to step away was a gamble that resulted in profound realignments in my life. I was able to disengage from engineering by simply choosing not to pick up where I left off. Instead, on my return I declared myself a physics major, a transitional move that lasted for only a semester before I finally came to rest in the psychology department, along with a number of other emigres from engineering. This was where I should have been from the start.

During that year of wandering among Jerusalem’s sandstone buildings, riding a kibbutz hay baler and teaching school for North African children more recently off the boat than I, a new self had taken shape – an independent me with a determination to control my life and a conviction that I could actually make a successful go of it. However, this newly hatched me was still living in my parents’ small three-room apartment, an arrangement that created almost daily skirmishes around the limits of my autonomy. Being a college commuter was definitely a drag on my social development.

One day, as I waited for Dr. Max Hertzman to begin the day’s Theories of Personality class, I was seated in my usual spot toward the back of the room. It was my custom to read the New York Times until class got under way. I was in the habit of reading the paper from back to front, beginning with sports and human-interest stories and ending toward the front where the weightier national and international news resided. That’s where I was when Hertzman spotted me ingesting the latest on coups in Iran and famine in Afghanistan.  “You’re just reading that out of a sense of obligation,” he said. “You can’t really care about those people. They’re just abstractions to you.”

I loved Hertzman’s class, an exploration of psychodynamics, conducted almost entirely through the reading and analysis of fiction, mostly plucked from the pages of The New Yorker. He was living proof that I could marry psychology and continue to enjoy my mistress literature. I was inclined to take everything he said seriously. Hertzman was right to question my interest in NATO and foreign aid, subjects which made my eyes glaze over, but he was dead wrong in other ways. My year in another country had widened my camera lens. It had confirmed the reality of people’s plights at a great remove from my own small Brooklyn village. People fell in love, had children and suffered loss in isolated towns in the Northern Negev – have you seen The Band’s Visit? – much as they did in Manhattan and the same must be the case in Iran, Afghanistan and New Guinea.

In the Fifties, much of what we knew and heard was filtered through a Cold War screen. On every continent the U.S. and Soviet Union were jockeying for positions that would secure their place as the dominant superpower. Even at City College the sirens sounded regularly to announce a drill which would clear the streets, lawns and classrooms and send everyone to designated bomb shelters. By my senior year, there were enough of us on campus who refused to buy the myth that one could secure yourself from the devastation of a nuclear blast. The only route to salvation was disarmament; continuing to participate in nuclear drills only made us complicit in the perpetuation of war.

After a decade so commonly thought to be somnolent, private, pacified, the conviction was gelling that citizen protest could change public policy. So, this time, as the sirens wailed, I stood on the lawn of the Student Center flanked by hundreds of others, refusing to take cover. We were confronted by an administrator who announced through his bullhorn that failure to move to the shelters could result in disciplinary action, including expulsion from school. Soon, campus officials were moving among us checking our IDs and noting our names and student ID numbers.

I felt the rush that thousands would feel in the decade ahead, the bold break with safety and security, confident that you were right to be throwing off your passivity and helplessness but unsure what price would be extracted for daring to make your voice heard.

The threats of expulsion were reinforced by letters from the college to our parents implying that seniors like me would not be allowed to graduate unless we repudiated our actions in writing. My parents had begun dreaming of my college graduation from the instant I was conceived. I hated to put them through this torment, but I was now ready to act on fronts that did not meet with their easy approval. My actions were not intended to hurt them, but in the best Jewish tradition in which they had raised me, there was work to be done to repair the world. In any case, the college never followed through on its threats. I somewhat reluctantly donned my gown and marched with debt-free classmates.

Despite the Rosenbergs, despite McCarthy, I continued to operate on the assumption that my government, though sometimes misguided, was a force for goodness and truth. That world went down in flames along with Francis Gary Powers and U-2, the plane, not the rock band. When Prime Minister Khruschev announced that an American spy plane had been shot down while violating Russian air space, President Eisenhower denied even the existence of spy planes. Khruschev then presented the captive pilot Powers to the media, along with photos of the downed plane to the world media. I was confronted by the irrefutable fact that our government lied to its own people.

For later generations schooled on Watergate and Viet Nam, this hardly seems like an earth-shattering revelation, but in 1960 the lies struck me as a betrayal that called into question all of my relationships with the institutions on which my world rested. In what other areas were we being deceived, misled, manipulated? Writ large, it was the child’s painful discovery that his parents have feet of clay.

That rending of the bonds of trust helped lay the groundwork for the coming decade of protest and confrontation. Whatever constraints had been operative till that point no longer held. Although the betrayal had taken place in the international arena, the aftermath was played out on a more modest stage far from the Kremlin. Not long after the U-2 incident, three young men sat in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Others followed close behind and the seeds that had been germinating through the previous decade blossomed like desert wildflowers after the first rain.

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Marv Hoffman

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