Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb university—a late sixties memoir.
I arrived in Chicago on a sweet September day in 1967. I fell in love with the marigolds on the quads and of course all the crazy gargoyles. The Beatles's Sgt. Pepper's album had come out that summer. As soon as I could I grew a moustache and got wire frames, just like John Lennon, the smart Beatle. I looked like a lot of other guys on campus.
My friend David Wexler, who had graduated the College and was staying on for grad school, said, "Watch. The Maroon will say your class is the brightest ever. Same every year." He was right. They said we were the brightest class ever and printed our mean SAT scores. Later I learned not to place much stock in standardized scores but was still impressed with my classmates.
Our education began right away. At a welcoming program Dean Wayne Booth told us to "See through the guff." I had never heard the word "guff" before but figured it was a Midwest term for "bull" and decided to take his advice. It turned out to be good counsel. There was a lot of guff being thrown around all right. Fortunately they also taught us how to see through it.
We heard the two phrases that for us became part of the Chicago lore. Value-free U of C. Life of the mind. It was tough, as most of us were also trying to figure out how to get a life of the body. It was even rumored that at the U of C you should be happy just to have a bare text in front of you and a bare room to read it in. That one made us shudder. We learned about how Hyde Park was developed, how poor people were displaced through so-called urban renewal, and how Julian Levi, the Woodlawn Corporation, and the University were no angels: "Hyde Park: middle class, black and white, shoulder to shoulder against the poor."
We started college in the middle of a dirty little war. We were told that some professors, the value-free types, were complicit in war research. We also knew we were at the bomb university. One of our first demos was protesting chemical research on campus. This consisted of picketing round and round the new bomb sculpture honoring Enrico Fermi and the first nuclear reaction under Amos Alonso Stagg Field. Professor Hans Morgenthau addressed us, and we felt legitimized.
At night we would stop by the Blue Gargoyle. The Gargoyle was a dark, peaceful coffee house in a church that served as a folkie hangout and the center for cadre, Chicago Area Draft Resisters. Some of the CADRE guys would ask us, "So when are you going to tear up your draft card?" The Blue Gargoyle was an emotional refuge, a still point in a turning world. On weekends one of our classmates, Angie Lee, would sing like an angel and accompany herself on guitar. To hear her do "Until It's Time for You to Go" and "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," her voice echoing all around, the candles flickering, you'd hold your breath and feel the world was at peace.
I felt lost and lonely a lot of the time. Pierce Tower seemed like an experiment run by a demented professor: put two strangers in a concrete cubicle the size of a casket, give them a rigorous academic load, then see if they survive. A number of first-years felt the same way and worse. (We learned to say first-year instead of freshman; it was explained that so many people took more than four years to finish the College that each class name was politely leveled and extended to fifth- and sixth-year students.)
"This place is cold, uncaring, and competitive," I said to Wexler.
"Yes, it is," he admitted. "But what you may find here is a caring for thinking. People take thinking seriously. Once you get into it, there's nothing like it. Thinking itself is a passion."
We'll see, I thought to myself passionately.
One of the best things that happened was a bunch of alienated first-year comrades decided to form our own seminar and get credit for it. What was really going on was we were struggling to figure out who we were and what the hell we were doing but not quite knowing how to deal with that. The organizers (Vicki Wirth, Ruth Hazzard, Ruth Schoenbach, and others) rounded up two professors, Vere Chappell from philosophy and David Orlinsky in psychology, and told them we wanted to study the Self. Fine, the professors said, but you're going to do it U of C style and read Plato, Descartes, Freud, and other dead white guys to see what they have to say about the Self-which we did. Mr. Chappell and his wife graciously invited us into their home, and we were thrilled to have class in their living room. That seminar, with its camaraderie, saved me from further despair.
Sadly, a year later most of those students as well as many others from my class had disappeared; somehow they had managed to transfer out to other schools under my nose. I never heard them talk about it, they just figured out how to punch through the bureaucracy and left.
That first year we worked to get the hang of academic life. It was easier for some than others. I remember seeing classmates, 18-year-old kids who already looked like distinguished professors, with beards, pipes, elbow patches, sagacious miens, and deliberate, cautious speech patterns. Years later they turned out to be distinguished professors with beards, pipes, elbow patches, sagacious miens, and deliberate, cautious speech patterns.
Getting a grade lower than you were used to after you thought you wrote a smart paper was a humbling experience. I didn't appreciate Plato ("Most assuredly, Socrates!") until I read him again a few years later. I loved C. Wright Mills's Sociological Imagination, the Communist Manifesto, Paradise Lost, and War and Peace. I read about old Pierre and Natasha by pulling an all-nighter on uppers on the top floor of Pierce Tower, watching the sun come up over Lake Michigan.
We made fun of academic language-meaningless, qualifying phrases, like "in a sense"-and marveled at the higher order level of "methodology," the methodical study of method, thinking about thinking. We studied whether intellectuals had any responsibility to society. Hell yes, we said. The University was conditioning us to salivate in anticipation of the new library (Regenstein) that was to be built over Stagg Field: where football was, there shall studying be. Even the graffiti in the dorms was erudite: Thucydides sucks Herodotus. Nietzsche's peachy, Sartre's smarter. When organized football on campus made a modest comeback, Students for Violent Non-Action (SVNA) provided us with a team cheer:
Thucydides, Demosthenes, the Peloponnesian War
X squared, Y squared, H2SO4 Underwhelm them ineffectually
Underwhelm them intellectually
But underwhelm them
Everybody finds a little piece of the quads and makes it their own. The coffee shop in the basement of Swift, the Divinity School, was a favorite for many; maybe it still is. I loved the Harriet Monroe Poetry Room on the top floor of Harper, quiet and peaceful with a view of the South Side.
Dorm life was crazy and intense. Marijuana was the drug of choice although binge drinking among some was a big deal. Hallucinogens were always in supply. A friend had taken LSD and complained of flashbacks a few weeks later. I suggested he check himself in to the psych ward at Billings and walked him over there. I had my own bout of anxiety one late night without doing any drugs.
There were a few friendly, available, male graduate students who hung out in the dorms, offering to help us get the hang of college life with tips about professors and courses. Some seemed a bit too friendly and available. Most of us were "latent heterosexuals," to use Woody Allen's phrase, and it was a struggle for us shy types to arrange the kind of contact we craved. Some classmates paired up immediately and began to live together as soon as they could get out of the dorms. Early on I endured one of those classic dark nights of the soul, lying awake till dawn while next door in a single room my more cool, confident, and assertive friend was with a woman classmate whom I too admired and desired.
Twenty years later at reunion a number of the students who had looked like they had their act together confessed they didn't know what they were doing regarding sex and relationships. They just acted like they did. I found that to be a relief. If we could have found a way to talk about it then, we would have been a hell of a lot better off. The seminar on the Self veered away from addressing personal issues and instead intellectualized the topic, which to some extent perpetuated the sense of alienation.
Not only in the classroom but also in the dorm you could suddenly find yourself cut down to size, humbled by what you didn't know. Once I stopped by the open door of an older student's room while his radio was playing a classical piece. "I wonder which one that is," he mused aloud. "That's Tschaikovsky's violin concerto," I said, proud to know. "Of course," he replied. "But whose version?" I walked away deflated. In my family there was only one, Jascha Heifitz's, with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. It had never occurred to me to listen to or compare other violinists or other conductors. Now that I get to replay the scene from the standpoint of a middle-aged boddhisattva-in-training, I might have smiled at this pompous twit (judgment, judgment), noticed my own ego attachment, given him and myself compassion, then stayed on to learn from him, thanked him, and felt OK.
The dorms did provide a great musical education. I picked blues guitar with a second-year African-American student who had the most incredible set of albums. I was introduced to the music of Chicago blues players like Buddy Guy, Howlin' Wolf, and Paul Butterfield. My friends turned me on to their jazz collections. We must have played John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and "Afro-Blue" a thousand times. During the day at any time you could hear the best rock and folk music-sorry, generations X, Y, and Z, you may be tired of us baby boomers' cultural hegemony, but it's true. Each time Dylan or the Beatles put out a new mind-blowing album, it felt like a whole other part of your own self unfolded that you didn't know was there. It was like Grace Slick said: "I'm doing things that don't have a name yet."
Some nights were magic. Outside would be zero degrees, winter was never going to end, the war was never going to end, you'd be in a room with both sexes, maybe stoned, with a candle or two, incense burning, listening to somebody playing guitar and singing "Suzanne." Sounds corny now, but They can't take that away from me. And as we used to joke back then, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean They're not out to get you." Whether in those days it was the Life of the Mind police or the Chicago police, your subversive right to pleasure threatened somebody.
That perennial Chicago student dilemma, the mind-body problem, took on protean forms for me. Looking back, I can measure some of my efforts to solve it by tracing my relationship with James Joyce's Ulysses. During my first year I wanted to take Professor John Cawelti's seminar, which covered A Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses. In high school I had struggled on my own through Ulysses after reading Portrait and even used the latter's end quote, "Welcome O life!…" to preface my College application essay.
To get into the seminar you needed permission from Mr. Cawelti. On the last day of winter quarter I screwed up my courage and called him up from a phone in the dorm. He immediately asked me to describe Joyce's theory of aesthetics as espoused by Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist. I was too nervous to remember, let alone provide a coherent answer on the spot. "You're not sophisticated enough to take this course," he told me bluntly. I was devastated. On my door I tacked up the last line of Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," then proceeded to do what it said: "I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough."
If I could replay that tape with Cawelti I might be able to admit the kernel of truth in his comment (and add the previous Dylan line, "The joke was on me, there was nobody even left to bluff"), let go of feeling hurt by his remark, and chalk it up to his level of awareness. Now that I am a professor myself I think hard about how to give feedback to students that is both truthful and supportive. With Cawelti I was nevertheless determined to succeed at some point; it turns out he and I weren't through with each other.
When our first spring finally arrived we didn't know what hit us. Those familiar with Hyde Park life know that actual springtime in Chicago is something of a miracle. That's notwithstanding the dead alewives that would wash up on the shore of Lake Michigan, a local twist on the return of the swallows. That spring, however, brought other unexpected events that were almost more than we could bear.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and we wept, raging helplessly at the madness and injustice. From a few miles away we could see the smoke from riots in neighborhoods across the city curling up into the sky. The world was heating up for the spring 1968 demonstrations in Paris, Mexico City, Prague. All power to the imagination. Why not? Although the campus was quiet, we were in touch with fellow students at places like Harvard, Madison, and Columbia. A student from Columbia gave us an eyewitness report of the police brutality against the demonstrators there. Although I considered myself more radical than liberal, I decided to work for Senator Eugene McCarthy in his bid to challenge LBJ for the presidential nomination because he had pledged to end the war. A bunch of us made our way up to Milwaukee to canvass voters for the Wisconsin primary. Yes, I was part of the "Keep Clean for Gene" brigade; they asked us scruffy college guys to cut our hair and clip our fuzzy faces so we wouldn't alienate mainstream voters.
Assigned to distribute literature in a Polish neighborhood on the south side of Milwaukee, I worked to get the right pronunciation of the poly-consonant names so I could address the household member when he or she opened the door. The irony was I forgot to bring my shaver on the trip and ended up looking exactly like a scruffy college kid who didn't belong in the neighborhood and who was probably trying to overthrow the government. The residents were properly suspicious when they saw me but were polite and took the literature.
McCarthy won the primary and we were elated; Johnson soon said he would not run for reelection, and we felt we had helped chase him out. The spring demonstrations and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy led into the summer Chicago police riots against the demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention, where Mayor Daley pronounced, "The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder." Back in New York working as a counselor in a summer camp upstate, I watched some of the convention on TV, sick-hearted.
When I returned to campus I was feeling better about things and got a single room in the Burton-Judson dorms on the other side of the Midway. I got some dates and would use Miles's Kind of Blue album for mood music when I invited a woman to my room. One woman friend surveying my bachelor lair was amused by my sophomoric-make that second-year-self-confidence. "When they warn us about the dangers of crossing the Midway," she laughed, "maybe this is what they mean."
That year I began taking psychology courses with the creative and decidedly unorthodox Marvin Frankel. Through his critiques I began to understand that much of the social sciences and the presumably scientific criteria for mental health are based on normative assumptions and not on any kind of eternal truth or universal wisdom. He introduced me to R. S. Peters's The Concept of Motivation, which did much to dismantle bloated psychological theories about why people do what they do. Frankel became my mentor for the next few years. Students appreciated him as an excellent teacher. However, because he was not a writer/researcher, at the end of our fourth year the psychology department did not grant him tenure. A number of us protested this system that seemed to strictly value research over good teaching, and we wrote letters and petitions on his behalf to no avail.
The winter of our second year was the sit-in. A few hundred students went in to the administration building and decided to camp out. The ostensible cause was the denial of renewal to Marlene Dixon, a first-term radical professor, by the sociology department. A broader source of discontent, however, was the arbitrary political values and decision making of some of the faculty and administration under the guise of neutral, value-free scholarship. The campus was split between those who appeared to defend their ideology under the veil of a disinterested, alleged universal method of inquiry and those who argued that ideas are not simply disembodied, floating things but reflect vested interests of certain people in power and have political consequences.
The sit-in, it seems to me now, was yet another symptom of students' profound disconnection and desire to connect our rich intellectual life, with its highly developed methods of contemplation and visions of a better world, with our everyday existence. This feeling was inchoate; students tended to manifest it within the prevailing cultural forms that were available to us at the time, a time of extraordinary possibilities and rising expectations during which we acutely felt the gap between what is and what could be.
Looking back at those years I see the emergence of what later came to be described as postmodern forces. They exposed the fault lines in Plato's cave, cracked the myth of eternal canons, dislodged the arch of overarching reason, and opened the way for the light of multiple voices submerged in darkness. The counterculture, the sexual revolution, the student movement, the women's movement, New Age spirituality, the gay rights movement, the use of drugs for higher consciousness, the black, Native American, and Chicano liberation movements, the anti-war movement: all that experimentation and struggle for inclusivity and expression produced exhilaration and anxiety, creativity and destruction, new knowledge and uncertainty. While the shadows in the cave receded, some of us stayed, spelunking for the Truth.
In the spring I managed to take Cawelti's course on Ulysses. It was exciting to try to decode all its layers of meaning with other students. I was stumped, however, on how to write the final assignment and took an incomplete; I had more to learn.
An experience in another literature class at the time stands out in my mind. One day for some reason the professor didn't show up. Rather than getting the hell out of there, as most students in most schools would have done, the entire class stayed for the whole period and had an impassioned discussion of the reading on our own. People actually listened to each other, as they did in all classes. I tell that story when people ask me about Chicago.
During my third year, living off campus, I began to get the hang of critique and got a few A's in sociology and other social-science courses by slashing normative theories to bits. I was Karl Marx running with the young Hegelians, dedicated to the ruthless criticism of everything that exists. I also picked bluegrass banjo with my roommate, Phil Rosenthal, who went on to play with the Seldom Scene. We helped out at the U of C Folk Festival which sponsored obscure, esoteric, "pure" folk musicians and got to go to some great pickin' parties.
That year I proudly identified with the "effete intellectual snobs," Spiro Agnew's epithet hurled at anti-war protesters. In November we took a school bus-short seats, no head rests-to Washington to protest the war, only to get a face full of tear gas, then crawled back on the bus and returned 16 hours later. A month later we guys sweated out the draft lottery on TV-the original, and scarier, Survivor show in which the home viewer wonders if he himself will be left standing; I was lucky and got a safe number. In the spring school was closed for a day after four students were killed at Kent State. I spent the day on the Midway playing touch football. It was Frankel and I, the Skeptics, versus Wexler and his thesis advisor (also my psych professor), Sal Maddi, the True Believers in scientific psychology. We played them to a draw.
The years passed, and I still had an incomplete in Ulysses.
That final year we began preparing to graduate. A lot of us didn't know what we were going to do; we may have been one of the last classes to have both the luxury and the uncertainty of that experience. At the last minute a number of classmates decided to go to law school; by the mid-1970s I heard that college students elsewhere were already "pre-law" in their first year, something we'd never heard of.
The two-year-old incomplete from the Ulysses course took almost the entire year to finish. I began the paper with one theme; then, just before the deadline, I discovered a quote that was the linchpin for what I was trying to say:
In woman's womb word is made flesh but in the spirit of the maker all flesh that passes becomes the word that shall not pass away.
I included it near the end of the paper and went on to show how the quote was relevant to both Stephen and Bloom in that it touches on both aspects of creation, artistic creativity and procreation, and that they were really two parts of the same whole.
Descartes be damned; I knew there was a mind-body connection somehow. To be able to see it though, you had to go past rational thought and view it with a different eye. With his red pen Cawelti admitted in the margin: "A very important quote which I had not really noticed before."
In a handwritten note at the bottom of the paper I said I realized at the last minute that I should have started with this notion of consubstantiality but only discovered it towards the end of the paper. He agreed that the paper would have been held together better but was "more than adequate as is." It was an A.
Cawelti of course had the last word: "You have an unfortunate tendency to leave elements of your sentences dangling." True enough. Everything was dangling: the quote, the note, the paper itself.
So was the future. My GPA was good, not great. I didn't go off into a blaze of pampered graduate school glory but instead went back to New York and studied psychology at the New School, then later on to Berkeley.
In the end I felt like a U of C survivor. My skin was pallid from too many hours in Regenstein, leathered from enduring the slings and arrows of professors and courses, frostbitten from being whipped by the winter Hawk. My psyche had taken some hits, and I still had a lot to learn emotionally and spiritually. However, I felt that if I could survive this joint, the so-called real world was nothing I couldn't handle. My mind and body had emerged intact. And I had learned how to see through the guff.
David Forbes, AB'71, teaches counseling in the School of Education, Brooklyn College/CUNY. The author of False Fixes: The Cultural Politics of Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Relations (SUNY Press. 1994), he is writing a book on doing meditation with inner-city high school male athletes. He lives in Brooklyn.