Of Colleges and Cohorts (Part 4)

11th March

“…I ask myself, is it possible for me to convey to the student the quality of this intention?”

Poughkeepsie has seen better days. On the banks of the Hudson river, 80 miles due north of NYC, it was once a flourishing port with papermills, hatteries and breweries, one of the latter being owned by Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College.  This is where Vinay and I have come to learn more about his place of work; he is an assistant professor in the French Department. The college is a little separate from the town and does not appear to have suffered the same decline. I sit in on the talk given by the Dean of Admissions to a number of fresh-faced high-school students and parents.

The Dean is a fast talker with an outrageous tie and a persuasive manner, he explains to us that this is a small college, with a little over 3,000 students and this year 8,000 applicants have applied for 650 places. If it has a student profile it might best be described as attracting bright students who dislike the conservatism of the Ivy League colleges. One of the features of the college is that is it does not offer any post-graduate studies, so all of the resources are directed towards undergraduates and they are always taught by professors to whom they have ready access. The college is also ‘Needs Blind’ meaning that if the Admissions Department accepts a student they then inform the Finance Department that the student can enter the college regardless of the money the student has and the Finance Department must provide any shortfall. This is relatively rare amongst US colleges now.

In keeping with his tie, the Dean also makes the outrageous comment that once part of the Vassar family students will be asked every year for the rest of their lives to give money to support the college and will be invited to be even more generous on the occasion of their death. He is only partly joking and I realize, as with the tie, I’m the only one in the room surprised by this. It brings me a little closer to understanding the American psyche and the wealth of the colleges.

This wealth is even more apparent as you take the campus tour. For a small college the buildings are numerous and imposing. Obviously Mr Vassar’s beer was pretty good, or there wasn’t much choice in those days.  The library is outstanding with a massive collection housed in what appears to be a modest castle, connected to which is a modern equally large extension. Our guide is doing the backward thing and it is clear this is not a simply a Californian aberration, but a nationwide college complaint.

In the boom time of the few decades preceding the 1920s and due tothe natural beauty of the surrounding countryside and its proximity to NYC, families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts built palatial homes in this area. Vinay and I stop at an imposing palladian style house in beautiful grounds overlooking the Hudson. It is beginning to get dark and we have only stopped because Vinay has realized that having left both his mobile phone and the map behind in his office, he is no longer sure where we are headed.

In Rhinebeck, the next small town to the North, we manage to find an open wireless signal and his iTouch solves the problem for us by calling up a map with the answers on it. We are headed for the home of former student Judy Cook and her partner and find it just before nightfall. Judy came to Brockwood from Summerhill and was a student for five years eventually leaving in 1992. I remember her best for her marvelous performance as the maidservant Grusha (the one who rescues and then raises the governor’s baby) in our production of A Caucasian Chalk Circle. Now she is preparing for her own baby in a months time. We meet her partner Carl and have an excellent supper and good conversation.

12th March

“Can I do this through mathematics, biology or any other subject?”

Vinay heads back to NYC and I get a lift with Carl to Bard College, two miles down the road.

Judy and Carl outside their home in Barrystown, NY
Judy and Carl outside their home in Barrystown, NY

Bard’s curriculum claims to combine the best of classical and progressive educational traditions while acknowledging the multidisciplinary nature of the world.  It is another small liberal arts college with a generous endowment (over $200 million) an impressive faculty to student ratio (1:9) and extensive grounds (over 500 acres). As I take the tour – and rescue the young college guide from walking backwards into a new art installation in the exhibition hall – I’m struck by a seeming lack of coherence and harmony in the buildings which are scattered around the campus. It is perhaps more striking after the uniformity of Vassar and it is a grey and dull day so nothing appears in a particularly good light. One exception is the new computer science building that snakes along the top of a hill, a river of glass and steel.

Later, talking to the Admissions Officer for International Students, I discover that we have a Brockwood student who has applied to Bard – so much for my background research! – and who has already been to visit. She made a very positive impression on both the student guide who showed her around and the woman to whom I’m now speaking. The latter implies that this was a student who would definitely be offered a place; she was exactly the kind of student they were looking for.

I go to the student canteen for lunch – $7 for all you can eat – and read an introduction to the college by Leon Botstein, the college president. He touches on what he calls the ‘Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon’ in many US colleges; the ‘staggering gulf between the classroom and the after-class life.’ He acknowledges that students work diligently and are attentive in class, but that once outside an entirely different pattern emerges. “American colleges are noted for their vulgarity in terms of extracurricular social life. There seems to be no connection between what students are learning and the way they go about living.” He goes on to argue that a college should be “…defined by the way learning transforms the definition of play”. It seems unlikely that this will happen unless there are educators who share the same concerns and who are interested in awakening an intelligence that stretches beyond their particular disciplines.

In the afternoon I go for a walk in the grounds of the Unification Theological Seminary run by the Unification Church, otherwise known to many as the Moonies. The seminary, founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, is in a former catholic school building, an imposing and featureless pile with the air of a failing factory rather than a college; broken windows, unkept grounds and little sign of life all add to the impression that this is an organization on its last legs.  I take the footpath open to the public called The Father’s Way, which leads down to the shores of the Hudson and a point where a rock is situated with a plaque on it that reads: “ON THIS PROMONTORY DURING APRIL 1977, REV. MOON INNOVATED THE FIRST CARP FISHING ADVENTURE IN BARRYSTOWN. HE SPENT MANY DAYS MAKING NETS HIMSELF. HE PERSONALLY SHOWED THE SEMINARIANS HIS UNIQUE STYLE OF FISHING”

A little further on there is another rock and plaque. This time celebrating the fireside talks Rev. Moon used to give on this spot. One of which took seven hours. Also acknowledged is the simultaneous translation of Mr Kim, which was carried out with ‘zeal and passion’. In the late 70’s the Moonies were good at fishing for more than carp and took after the Rev’s indefatigable style when it came to preaching for the cause and ‘love bombing’ lonely and confused individuals. I recall my own close encounter with them on a street in San Francisco in the late 70’s, the women friendly and engaging at a time when I felt lost in a new city, the men earnest and clean cut in suits and ties. I’m glad I said ‘no’ to their invitations, I’m glad to see time and nature reclaiming this property on the banks of the Hudson.

13th March

“Mathematics is order, infinite order. Order is the universe, is intelligence.”

There is a train to catch, but some time to spare so Judy and Carl drive me on the scenic route past various buildings at Bard that went unseen the day before. The most striking of these is the one that looks as though it has escaped from ‘Lord of the Rings’ having been built for large hobbits. It is the Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Frank Gehry, the man responsible for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the flowing steel roof spilling over the sides gives it the appearance of a slightly jaunty mushroom with attitude.

We drive to ‘Tivoli Bread and Baking’ where Carl’s old school friend bakes a wonderful range of fresh pastries, breads and cakes. It’s standing room only for a breakfast of croissant and coffee while everyone catches up on the local news and later, onboard the train to NYC, I polish off one of the dark cherry scones in preparation for the vicissitudes of city life.

The train runs alongside the Hudson all the way down to NYC and at times there are peaks reminiscent of Switzerland and remarkable houses perched on the rivers edge; the most surprising being what appears to be the ruin of a gothic castle on one of the islands. We pass the West Point Military Academy on the opposite bank, brooding and grey under leaden skies.

New York this weekend is battered by a storm which leaves six dead from weather related accidents, thousands of homes without electricity and many others damaged and in a few cases completely flattened. As I emerge from the subway the city is in the grip of driving rain and high winds and everywhere umbrellas are being blown inside out and pedestrians are scuttling for cover. I make it to the apartment in midtown Manhattan where the get-together is to happen and over the course of the next hour eleven Brockwood alumni are blown in, damp and chilly but all in one piece. They are:

Philip Koralus                       1998-2001

Krishna Tyagarajan               1991-1993

Tilly Grimes                          1997-2001

Sid Goyal                              2006-2008

Hugo Mahabir                       1977-1979

Emanuelle Kihm                    1985-1989

Vinay Swamy                         1986-1991

Olga Gonzalez                       2001-2004

Lauren Russell                       1992-1994

George Matthew                    1984-1985

Caleb Marcus                        1992-1995

Back row, left to right: Philip, Krishna, Tilly, Sid, Hugo / Sitting, left to right: Emanuelle, Vinay, Olga, Bill, Lauren, George / In front: Caleb
Back row, left to right: Philip, Krishna, Tilly, Sid, Hugo
Sitting, left to right: Emanuelle, Vinay, Olga, Bill, Lauren, George
In front: Caleb

Having braved the elements and armed with snacks and drinks we launch into the slideshow and discussion. This is an animated and lively group. Many are meeting for the first time and there is a curiosity and desire to share and understand which is contagious. They are encouraged to hear about Brockwood’s successes and concerned to hear about its problems. They share stories and want news of individuals with whom contact has been lost and they generate ideas of things that could be done to help. Three hours passes in a flash and we take a group photo before some have to leave and the rest of us head into the teeth of the storm to find a good restaurant.

Half of the group gets lost on the way following the wrong umbrellas down the wrong street into the wrong restaurant. But there is a flurry of phone calls and we are reunited over hot garlic bread, pasta and red wine. The restaurant is a noisy, steamy retreat from the weather outside and the story telling continues for several hours more.  We bid farewell at the door and step into the torrential rain once again to be blown in many directions down different streets, all carrying something of this remarkable evening in our hearts.

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