In what’s likely my last book of essays and reviews (Dinosaur Reflections, 2021), I adopted the persona of venerable or hidebound or petrified age in order to pronounce on matters related to education as I’ve experienced it. This dinosaur has shared a headful of poems with students and others, one of which that keeps cropping up is titled “In Those Days,” by the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell. It’s about a remembered time when a man and a woman were young. It concludes, “How poor and miserable we were, / How seldom together! / And yet after so long one thinks: / In those days everything was better.”
Though I have never been poor and not often been miserable, those final two lines speak to me as I think back from these days to another time. Then I hasten to correct myself—“No, not better, just different.” But the poets refuse to give in to such sensible correction: Kingsley Amis, author of the great novel Lucky Jim, also wrote a poem-lament for the Oxford of his undergraduate days: “A block of time, which like its likenesses / Looks better now the next such has begun / Looks, and in this case maybe really is.”
So, it’s dangerous to consider the past from the standpoint of age, since change is of the essence and sentimentalizing one’s past is to be avoided. Yet is it possible that in those days everything was better?
There is a further problem in speaking with some conviction about the past and its unrecoverable pastness. In T.S. Eliot’s famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he confronts the problem in literary terms: “Someone said, ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.” When I presume to make judgments about the past of Amherst College, I must acknowledge that—as with Eliot’s dead writers—that past is precisely that which I know. How then to achieve a perspective independent of that past which allows me to criticize it?
I find myself ensnared by the very phenomenon that makes such a perspective highly problematic, to say the least. I don’t want to bite the hand that has fed me. What I can do is say a word about the institution as I encountered it as a young instructor in the fall of 1958, not in the spirit of deploring its stone-age customs and behavior, nor as a time in which everything was better. It takes some play of mind to hold the two eras (were they really eras or something less daunting?) in any sort of balance, in tandem. Nevertheless…
It was all male back then—students, faculty, administration—and for the new instructor it felt like all classroom: three courses that met three times a week, Monday through Saturday. These were “Freshman Composition” (in two sections of 20 students each) and a sophomore “Introduction to Literature.” No lecturing; everything dependent for its life on the back-and-forth of teacher and class. Plenty of required written work: in English l (the composition course) students wrote short papers three times a week; these were the subject of next meeting’s scrutiny. At the end of the semester this amounted to roughly 1,300 papers to read (commented on but not graded). The literature course required eight or so papers of greater length. Classroom tones varied, but I tried to make mine lively, even aggressive, as I read aloud their paragraphs and made appropriate comments, usually seasoned with what I hoped was humorous, often sarcastic, delivery. A teacher’s comments might be brutally concise; one of my colleagues in the composition course drew a line under some sentence that announced, “I stopped reading here.” Another liked to scrawl “Mayonnaise” in the margin by way of suggesting the texture of a student’s prose. I got in trouble with a student in one of my sections who rebelled at being teased and (he thought) tortured. He dubbed me “The Impeccable Expounder of Dogma.”