Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (i)
The Columbia scene in September 1965 had little connection to the people I had known at Flushing High School. Columbia was a college-level, glorified prep school for upper-middle-class whites. In entering Columbia, I was, temporarily, escaping from my social class and linking up with the left-wing intellectual youth of the U.S. white upper-middle-class, on a political and personal level.
I was assigned a dorm room in Furnald Hall during Freshman Week. My mother and father drove me and my suitcase to the campus and went with me to open a bank account at Chemical Bank's branch office at 113th St. and Broadway. I did not like having to wear a Freshman beanie, and I felt uncomfortable being required to wear a suit and tie to many of the Freshman Week orientation events.
My father and mother were proud of me because I was attending a high-status school like Columbia. They assumed that admission to Columbia meant I was going to become a teacher, a professor, a lawyer, a conventional writer or some other kind of middle-class professional, eventually marry some upper-middle-class Jewish Barnard College woman, settle down after graduating from Columbia, buy an automobile and provide them with two grandchildren. Little did my parents realize, at the time I entered Columbia, how alienated from conventional middle-class values and U.S. society I already was, and how rebellious, non-conformist and artistic were my aspirations.
To my parents, my admission to Columbia was proof that the U.S.A. was an open society for people from my class background. But Columbia wasn’t paying me to sit in their elite Ivy League classrooms. I was taking out loans, using my New York Regents scholarship and my $50 Knights of Pythias scholarship, my summer job earnings and a portion of my father’s hard-earned money to pay Columbia for the right to secure a Columbia BA and interact with upper-middle-class people. After my freshman year, I no longer asked my father to help pay for my Columbia student status.
My memories of Freshman Week are vague. I met Tom by the elevator in the lobby of Furnald Hall dormitory. Tom was from Utica and was friendly. His political views were close to Barry Goldwater’s and William Buckley’s views in 1965. But he was interested in seriously debating intellectual issues.
I enjoyed the view of the Columbia campus from my Furnald Hall window during Freshman Week. I quickly became used to living in a room alone, without the presence of any family to exchange conversation with, and without the presence of a television set. But the sound of radios playing the top hit record of the moment—“Eve of Destruction”—could be heard through the open dorm windows of some other freshmen during Freshman Week.
The other freshmen at Columbia were a varied group of people. The students from the prep schools and from the wealthy backgrounds seemed more sophisticated and self-assured than the small number of students from the working-class schools and proletarian backgrounds. Barnard women were always characterized in sexist and anti-feminist ways when they were discussed by the juniors and seniors who served as Freshman Week hosts. Freshman Week indoctrinated Columbia College freshmen with the notion that being a “Columbia whole man” meant screwing without love as many women on weekends as you could, during your four years of college. You were then supposed to marry the prettiest showpiece you could seduce, and go on to either graduate school, professional school, the officer corps of the military, or some high-paying corporate manager or free professional job.
The only senior I met during Freshman Week inside Furnald Hall who seemed like a serious intellectual was a philosophy major named Barney, who urged me to “get involved in some form of activism.” Barney had moved back into his dorm room before most of the other juniors and seniors who were not Freshman Week hosts arrived back on campus. He was active in the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan but wasn’t a member of the New Left.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
8 years ago