Thursday, November 26, 2015

Town and Gown

One of the reasons why I chose to retire to Middlebury was that it has some similarities to the town where I attended college, namely, Greencastle, Indiana. Greencastle is also a rural county seat, and DePauw University is about the same size as Middlebury College. There were things that I liked about DePauw, but I wouldn't want to live in Greencastle again. I still have some connections in Indiana, but none of my relatives live there, it is a right-wing state, the educational level is low, the terrain isn't interesting and it gets hot there during the summer. Middlebury and its vicinity are much prettier and more rural, the people are better educated, the cultural amenities are superior, and so is the college. Actually, it would be fine with me if I never returned to Indiana again.

My first year at DePauw was almost a magical experience for me. I set off on a train by myself to college, sight unseen, from Manhattan, with a trunk and a reel-to-reel tape recorder in August of 1968. My father, the drunk, drove me to the station and symbolically gave me an acorn to plant when I arrived. In those days, prior to the closing of the rail line, Greencastle was a whistle stop, and I had to tell the conductor when to stop the train. It seemed as if I were in the middle of a cornfield, because that was about all you could see, and the old train station had long been abandoned. I left my belongings unattended by the tracks, walked toward town, came across a drugstore and called a cab. As colleges go, DePauw wasn't as bad as it might have been, and living in that environment was nirvana to me after living with a dysfunctional family in a suburb that had become an enclave for social climbers. Knowing that fraternities were idiotic, I elected to live in a dorm. I met many of the international and out-of-state students, so at first it didn't occur to me that the majority of the students were dull Hoosiers or the children of wealthy families from the Chicago suburbs. I was just elated to live in a place where ideas seemed to matter and most of the people I ran into didn't seem like fools. Unfortunately, I was later hoodwinked into marrying one of the dull Hoosiers, and the rest is history.

No doubt there were some town and gown disputes while I lived in Greencastle, but I wasn't aware of them at the time. DePauw is a Greek-dominated college with lots of rowdy fraternities. Things changed considerably while I was there, and by the time I left most of the students looked like hippies and smoked pot, though beneath the surface they were still conservative Midwesterners who ended up becoming accountants and lawyers. DePauw was originally associated with the Methodist Church, but Middlebury had no church affiliation and was created by townspeople who felt a need for an institution of higher learning. If you fast forward to today, there are some town and gown disputes in Middlebury, but they seem to be minor.

The relationship between town and gown has gradually become clearer to me. The townspeople are just ordinary people earning a living, and the college is populated by professors who generally know far less than I once attributed to them. As I've said, professors are usually just good students who wind up teaching college, and in hindsight I don't think I learned much from them. I used to be annoyed by the fact that my college experience wasn't well thought out and that no one at the college took any responsibility. I would have been OK with DePauw if anyone had said that with my curriculum I would receive some intellectual stimulation and have a good time, but that I would eventually have to learn something more useful to earn a living. I did eventually study printing and business, which proved sufficient to finance the rest of my life, but the process would have been far more efficient if I had gone into it knowing that I would be doing a few years of broad study followed by a few years of vocational study, and that the two would not necessarily intersect. I only found this out on my own over a long period without any help. If I knew then what I know now, I would not have expected to be prepared for the workforce when I finished college and would have selected an actual vocation before receiving my B.A. degree. At the time, the people at liberal arts colleges were mindlessly repeating the mantra that they were teaching you how to think critically and communicate well, which supposedly would leave you set for the rest of your life. In retrospect it was a lie, because throughout my working years critical thinking and communication skills were far less important than following instructions and conforming. If anything, my liberal arts education made me more incompatible with the American workforce than I might have been otherwise, because the ability to think independently is a handicap in most jobs. My undergraduate experience turned out to be a personal growth period with no practical advantages. I now view many of my former professors as vaguely incompetent adults who should never have been given the charge of vulnerable minds.

The town and gown here are fairly well integrated, and most conflicts are quickly resolved. It helps that the college has a billion-dollar endowment and doesn't balk at spending it to keep the downtown looking respectable, which makes it appealing to the wealthy students they seek. Some of the students are so rich that they could live off their trust funds and never work. There are cases in which the town and gown have literally merged. After he graduated from Middlebury in 1972, future governor Jim Douglas married his dentist's assistant, Dorothy, a woman who grew up on a farm here. She still does all the yard work (and probably all of the home repairs) and he now works as an executive in residence at the college. We have no affiliation with the college and are just as likely to oppose it as support it, depending on the issue. Recently we opposed the use of a neighbor's house for student housing, since Middlebury students have a reputation for drunkenness and loud parties. On that issue we sided with the local bubbas, who stopped by our house in a large pickup truck to tell us that there would be shooting practice next door to the students' house early in the morning after a Halloween party there. Although I sympathize with students who want to live off campus – I lived off campus myself for two out of four years – I'd rather not have them living around here.

We have many affinities with the college. Occasionally we attend concerts and lectures, and the art museum isn't bad for a small college. We attended the wedding reception of one of our neighbors, who is an economics professor. Her children had been over for some stargazing. The college has an enormous economic impact on the county, and I think of it as comparable to a large manufacturing plant, but with a highly-educated workforce. We're not close friends with any of the faculty, but I think they add to the desirability of the region. Last September, when my daughter and grandson were visiting, we happened to be seated next to Jay Parini and his wife at a restaurant. Parini is a well-known English professor who was a friend of the late Gore Vidal. His wife struck up a conversation with my daughter about babies. I like that informality. If the college wasn't here, this would be an economically depressed county with far less cultural vibrancy than it currently possesses.

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