This is the second in what I expect to be a set of three related essays. The first is here.
I attended the Class of 1982’s twenty-fifth anniversary reunion at Macalester College in June, and have been digesting the experience ever since. Some thoughts….
Many people find value in a reunion’s networking: Reconnecting with old friends, retelling old tales, and spinning new tales about the shared trip to middle age. I’m not one of those folks. My reunion was more about memory, about exploring a familiar neighborhood, about revisiting a place that still gives my life a foundation.
My networking efforts failed, anyway. Of eighty or so classmates who attended the reunion, only two clearly remembered me. My odd academic history made for some discomfort, as many conversations necessarily began with a discussion of why I didn’t seem familiar. My response involved enrolling at Mac in 1967, dropping out as a sophomore, a Vietnam year, classes at another institution, a decade spent mostly working in politics, and returning to complete my degree. My January graduation further confounds things.
Our Class Reunion theme was "Get Over It." This theme implies an unasked question: Was (is) the Macalester experience worth the price? The question came up by implication in those conversations with imperfectly-remembered classmates, by reference in a presentation exploring our responses to a reunion survey, and quite explicitly twice at the Class Dinner: Our hostess (Mary Morse Marti, I think) wandered around the topic for several minutes before explicitly raising the question as something she still found difficult to answer, and Macalester’s President Brian Rosenberg told us he considers all the early-eighties classes to be problems because their members have largely detached themselves from the community. These concerns have causes.
My classmates experienced the tail-end of the school’s budget crisis, and it’s quite possible to portray their college years harshly. They (we) remember the classrooms and dorms at their worst–old buildings, in many cases, whose maintenance had been deferred, then deferred again, as the college stumbled through the seventies. They attended a school whose glory years–the sixties–seemed impossible to recover in a very different political and economic climate, and whose present was dominated by fiscal concerns. Entire departments were, in the memories of my classmates, academically inadequate; students who concentrated in those disciplines feel particularly aggrieved about their Macalester experience. And, of course, my class directly remembers the football losing streak, which ended during "our" junior year (quotes because I wasn’t actually there).
For many of my classmates, then, their college career is a bitter-sweet memory. It strained the family budget, and left them personally in heavy debt, without delivering the satisfactions they’d thought–and still think–they should get from a liberal arts education. Their dissatisfaction is grounded in reality, and their questions about value are reasonable. Perhaps it really was an exercise in futility.
A final annoyance: After we graduated, the school’s finances recovered. While no one begrudges our successors their good fortune, it gives us yet another unsatisfactory comparison. It’s really quite sane to believe the early-80s classes at Mac drew a bad hand.
While I think this is a fair summary of the sentiments I heard at the reunion, it’s certainly as distorted a portrait of Macalester as the Oversimplified History I sketched a few days ago. I’ll talk about why in the next installment.