Twenty years ago this month I graduated from Swarthmore College with a liberal arts degree in biology. I’d been well-trained to do everything and nothing: everything because four years of Swarthmore convinced me that I could learn most anything successfully, and nothing because past that I really hadn’t learned much of practical value. After leaving Swarthmore I entered the world with high confidence and major insecurity. I had some wonderful and very rough years ahead. Had Swarthmore prepared me for a balanced life as it so roundly promised or had it failed me? Reflecting on those formative years of two decades back, I wish to study my college experience, in good Swarthmore fashion, logically.
Pro #1: Being surrounded by an extremely high percentage of super-intelligent people raised the bar significantly for my critical thinking.
Con #1: But it was considered antisocial to focus that critical thinking on any number of important subjects, and if you tried you were considered stupid, wrong, backward, rude, or strange—or were simply shunned. It was like high school all over again, just with people who were a lot smarter and a lot less physically threatening.
Pro #2: It was a sheltered environment. I was immature when I entered at 18 and had specifically sought out a place with a high degree of structure, boundaries, and cushion from many of the harsher realities of the world. This provided me a good transition out of my small hometown.
Con #2: But we lived in a bubble, and this bred a sort of cultish arrogance of superiority that took me a few painful post-college years to shed. The truth is, I didn’t know better about life than most people, and I had to get out of the shelter and get smacked around a bit to figure it out. And add to this that almost no one outside of our bubble had ever even heard of Swarthmore, so our fancy academic reputation meant essentially nothing in most the real world.
Pro #3: It was a small college where almost everyone who started graduated, and this allowed me to keep the same interconnected circle of friends for four years. In many ways that continuity served me well.
Con #3: But because everybody knew you, it was harder to delight in the creative space of anonymity and it increased the pressure to conform. And most of these friends were pretty fake. Fake was cool at Swarthmore, especially if you did it with wit and talent and got good grades.
Pro #4: Class sizes were generally quite small.
Con #4: But I found so little good, real, honest, emotionally-connected discussion in them that size didn’t matter. And when I tried to engage in real discussion I mostly found myself shut down or ignored. I learned the hard and painful way just how ugly and psychologically troubled political correctness is, and this applied to the college president on down. I really found myself disappointed by the limited and foolish rules governing Swarthmore discussions on race, gender, sexuality, and class. I often found that people outside of Swarthmore, especially those with less formal education, were much more open to honest discussion.
Pro #5: There was an attitude at Swarthmore that we had a social responsibility to make this world a better place. I took that to heart.
Con #5: But most everyone else just gave that attitude lip service. The truth is, almost everyone I met at Swarthmore, including professors, was there for his or her own private interest first, second, and third. Altruism in any bigger sense was generally quite insincere. I have been reading the Swarthmore alumni magazine for twenty years and following the happenings of my classmates, and despite our awareness of the increasing horrors that are happening in the world both economically and ecologically, my fellow alums remain most gleeful when bragging about their fancy careers and their never-ending new children. We studied overpopulation and the ecological catastrophe in biology, but never once was it explored in relation to our personal responsibility as individuals. Heaven forbid a professor had professed the value in not having children. My professors were cowards and most of my fellow students were mice. Oh, and it was a really expensive education. Thankfully my dad paid for it because he had some money, and I am grateful to him for that, but he held it over my head for years, especially when I came home on holidays expressing ambivalence about Swarthmore.
Pro #6: Swarthmore expected a lot of me academically, and there was no free ride. You did the work, you did it well, or you were out. And if you did it well you got a B or a C. You had to do great to get an A. I find this respectful.
Con #6: But again, they assessed our work through their silly, myopic lenses of political correctness. Even in biology. Creativity, real creativity, was not valued. It threatened the deadness of the Swarthmore norm, which is basically the deadness of our society’s elite. I remember in biology trying to talk about how humans and human nature—our thoughts and our feelings and our behavior—fit into all that was happening in the natural world, and I was told that this was not to be discussed in biology. That was psychology. When I went over to the psychology department they only talked about rats and pigeons and feminism and social constructionism. I knew I didn’t fit in there. And the philosophy department was even worse. I couldn’t understand anything they were talking about. In philosophy you had to be esoteric and dissociated to be taken seriously.
Pro #7: I studied guitar intensely at Swarthmore, such that my love for it became a lifelong devotion. Music history too. And literature. I discovered Herman Hesse there—and Gandhi and Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. And Woody Guthrie, Odetta, and Neil Young, to name a few.
Con #7: But all this happened outside the classroom. On my own. In my only music class at Swarthmore, in the first semester of my freshman year, the professor made fun of one of my favorite musicians, Burl Ives, and the whole class laughed. I was hurt and offended, but too scared and intimidated to speak up. I kept my feelings private. This was normal at Swarthmore.
Pro #8: The Swarthmore Gospel Choir was excellent. I loved gospel music and I loved to sing, so I was excited to join. Also, having grown up in a semi-poor, racially mixed neighborhood with a black best friend during my elementary school years, I saw this as a chance to bond with black people. When I was a kid, black people tended to be a lot more real than white people, and I valued this.
Con #8: But I was told I could not join the group because I was white. This was both painful and shocking to me, as I had never before in my life experienced overt institutional racism. This was during my first week at Swarthmore. I was also told by members of the choir that they were not black, but African-American. When I pointed out that one member of the group didn’t look African-American at all, they said that she was Puerto Rican and thus a “person of color”—and acceptable to them. (My being half-Jewish was not colorful enough.) I complained about this, and pointed out that as a college-funded organization they were required to comply with the college’s rules and not discriminate based on qualities such as race. They ignored this and turned me away, which taught me two lessons: first, that political correctness trumped the rules, and second, that there was not a damn thing I could do about it. In fact, no one was even interested in talking about it, much less hurt and incensed by it. And so I lost a part of my voice. And I never made any close black friends in the subsequent four years. Instead, though, I heard a lot of talk from many of the black people and many of the whites too about how Swarthmore was a subtly racist organization and how my job as a white person was to feel guilty about my white privilege. But I couldn’t. Somehow I just couldn’t, even if it is true that Swarthmore probably is subtly racist against blacks.
Pro #9: I did learn a good deal about science and the scientific method in my bio classes, and that has served me well in life. I will never regret that.
Con #9: But few of my fellow students were really into the type of biology that I was. I loved the natural world. I loved fossil collecting, butterfly and moth collecting, taxidermy, hunting, fishing, sleeping outside, tracking animals, dissecting animal poop, imitating bird calls, and eating wild plants. Those weren’t part of the Swarthmore curriculum. I learned the hard way that becoming a biologist and being a naturalist were different things, and at Swarthmore rarely did the twain meet. And, incidentally, most of my fellow bio majors weren’t into Swarthmore biology either, not in any passionate way. A sizable number were just using bio as a stepping stone to medical school. And they weren’t becoming doctors because of passion for humanity, though of course they put that on their med school applications and no doubt had Swarthmore references that verified it. They were mostly grinding nerd types, out for the grade—and eventually the status and the money.
Pro #10: I took one class I loved at Swarthmore, a language class: Intro to Mandarin Chinese. I took it for two semesters, my whole senior year. I loved my professor, a strict but kindly native Mandarin speaker who loved me in return. She opened up a whole new world to me by helping me learn to speak. I busted my ass in her class and ended up going to China the summer after I graduated, which changed my life. I went there on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Russia, with my guitar. Before I left, pretty much everyone who was not a Mandarin speaker thought my spoken Mandarin wouldn’t be good enough to allow me to thrive there. They were wrong, quite wrong.
Con #10: I hesitate to write any cons here, even though this has become something of a Swarthmore-bashing essay and I don’t want to include my Chinese experience in with that, but in the spirit of honesty I will. There were two cons, and they were simple. First, the majority of my fellow Mandarin-language students were American-born Chinese, and many of them were not nice to me. Some were even overtly hostile. One guy, whom I believe spoke for an opinion not just his own, told me that he felt I didn’t belong in the class because I was a culture-rapist. Really, though, I think he was just ashamed of being Chinese. Incidentally, I found the exact opposite attitude among most Chinese people in China. They loved me in China and respected how hard I was working to speak their tongue. Also, I learned that many of my Chinese-American classmates had been pressured from their Chinese-born parents to learn Chinese properly, and thus they resented the class. They did the bare minimum to get the good grades required, and did so passionlessly. I was there only for the passion of it. I was drinking up the language. At least the spoken language. That brings me to my second criticism: that at least half of our energies in the class were going toward learning Chinese characters, which for me were irrelevant because I knew I wouldn’t study them after school ended. My proposal to my professor was that if she stopped making me learn the irrelevant and very difficult characters, I would learn five times as many spoken words. She refused, saying that learning the characters was vital. I tried to explain myself better and even upped the ante, promising to learn ten times the vocabulary words. She again refused, absolutely, and that hurt me. Twenty years later I can say with certainty that she was wrong. I ended up learning how to speak understandably (in part because I learned the extra vocabulary anyway, because I wanted to) and I never got any use out the written characters, even when I was in China. There were simply too many and they were too complex, which I realized quickly even at Swarthmore. And within a year I’d forgotten them all anyway. Twenty years later, though, I can still speak a goodly chunk of Beijing-dialect Mandarin. Sadly, her real error, though, was something endemic to Swarthmore: that she didn’t trust me. Had she trusted me she would have fully supported my passion, and she would have been the first authority figure at Swarthmore to do so. But at least she came close. And that’s why I love her more than I love any of the other authority figures I met there.