A Country Boy Went to Columbia College

March 10, 2013

I transferred from California State University, Long Beach to Columbia College (New York) in 1977.  I did that because I met a guy at a party, that January, who said that, if I hoped to get into a good grad school, I had better try to graduate from someplace more prestigious.  I don’t know if that was true.  He, himself, had just been accepted into a PhD program at Harvard.  But he was sort of an academic superstar, whereas I was just a good student.  For better and for worse, his advice built a fire under me.  I did some quick research and chose Columbia because, by that point (i.e., January), a lot of the best-known schools’ transfer application deadlines had already passed, but Columbia’s hadn’t.

Background:  Cal State Long Beach

I’d had a good educational experience at CSULB.  I’d been living in a garage for a few months before I decided to return to school.  That was due to a decision to prioritize Bible study, to resolve a crisis of belief that I had been wrestling with for more than a year.  Not surprisingly, that background led to a major in philosophy.

Some of the philosophy professors at CSULB were oddballs.  Some were poor teachers.  But for the most part it was a stimulating, interesting field of study.  It was excellent preparation for law school; it had a permanent impact on how I saw things, and fed my enduring desire to learn more – not only about philosophy, but about literature, the arts, and other areas of learning and experience that intersect with philosophical thought.  It was the kind of big state university where a history professor of Middle Eastern heritage would invite me to spend the night with his family so that we could get a good start on a Paul Klee conference in downtown L.A. the next day.

Even the instances of oddness meshed with campus lore.  I heard about a professor who, to prove a point of some kind, climbed up into a tree on campus, clambered out onto a limb, and sawed it off.  Apparently he fell to the ground (along with the limb) and broke his arm.  There was someone who often played a pretty instrument, like maybe a piccolo, at the start of the day, standing high up on one of the classroom buildings’ external staircases; there was a semi-crazed literature student who got expelled for a violent poetry reading that featured urine, mice, and a hammer.  Famous alumni included Steve Martin, Steven Spielberg, Stu Rosen, and Richard and Karen Carpenter.

Long Beach itself was a funky place.  In some spots, it still had a flavor of the old surfer towns; in others, it felt like New Mexico.  It was where Larry Walters came up with the idea of tying helium balloons to a lawn chair, and went up to 15,000 feet.  It was the home of Egg Heaven and the Strand bookstore and a lot of homeless veterans and the Queen Mary and (at that time) the Spruce Goose and God knows what else.

It cost me $98 a semester for full-time tuition at CSULB.  I made the most of it.  Along with the philosophy, I had good courses in history, literature, and German.  Somehow the German students formed a cohesive group:  we had a lot of fun, and some of us stayed in touch for years thereafter.  My fellow students included an octogenarian working on her master’s degree, a spelunker who biked all the way from Hermosa Beach, a Vietnam vet who loved learning, a bearded thinker who left for a PhD at Stanford, a woman who had earned a 4.0 while taking courses there for seven years . . . and so on.  It was a lovely place – the kind of place where a student could derive enormous pleasure from just lounging around the pretty campus and becoming fascinated with assigned readings from writers as varied as Franz Kafka, Bertrand Russell, and Amos Tutuola.

Criticisms of Columbia College

I flew from L.A. directly to LaGuardia, took a taxi to the Times Square Motor Hotel, and rode the subway up to Columbia the next day.  When I got there, I immediately walked across College Walk (116th Street).  I went from Broadway to Amsterdam to the end of 116th at Morningside Park – and then stopped, baffled.  Where was the campus?  After the sprawling real estate of CSULB, it seemed that I must have missed it somehow.  I went back to Low Library, turned north, and walked past the Business School, past the gym, down toward the tennis courts – and now had to accept that this was it.  The campus of this famous university was just this little space of maybe a dozen square blocks?

Because of limits on transfer credits, I had to spend another two years at Columbia College.  One of my courses was a mandatory Literature Humanities course.  I remember that, one time after class, the professor apologized to me for the quality of the other students.  It was obvious that I was really into this stuff, and for the most part they just weren’t.

I have no doubt that, compared to my CSULB classmates, these were more competitive students.  They would surely tend to do better on homework assignments, standardized tests, and so forth.  But unlike the situation among philosophy and literature majors at CSULB, it seemed that most of these people were not taking these courses because they were interested.  They were taking them because they were required.  The question, for them, was not what Faulkner was trying to say; it was whether they actually needed to read The Sound and the Fury, or could instead find a way to fake it.  It often seemed that the purpose of having brains was to be an extrovert:  to do a superior job of self-promotion and playing the academic game.  A great example arose when one student was forcefully expressing his viewpoint on Afghanistan, which the Soviets had invaded.  The professor got a twinkle in her eye, went to the blackboard, and sketched out the boundaries of nations in central and south Asia.  Then she asked which country was which.  Students knew which was India, but what was the name of this one?  Afghanistan, maybe.  Or was that Pakistan, or Iran?  People weren’t too sure.

At Columbia, I switched from philosophy to political science.  That was OK – I learned a lot of things – but if I had it to do again, I would not choose that major.  I did it because I felt pressure to be getting in touch with something involving the real world.  I still planned to go for a PhD; I just thought it should probably be in a social science.  Some of the subject matter was good.  It was valuable, for example, to learn about material measures of a nation’s political strength (e.g., miles of railway, annual steel production, GDP), and about historical and cultural influences shaping the course of development or the form of government.  But there were also a lot of assigned readings in dry political theory that did not seem to have much use except to stimulate disagreements from other political theorists.

Many of our professors had solid credentials.  For example, the guy teaching a course on Eastern Europe was a former top member of the Polish government.  But he was hard to understand, and he wasn’t a good teacher.  It seemed that the professor who taught several of my required political science courses, another poor instructor, was related to one of the university’s key administrators.  For faculty, as for students, the emphasis seemed to be upon career advancement, not on love of the subject matter.  So, for instance, when I asked my favorite professor for her thoughts on whether I should proceed on to a PhD in political science, her chief concern seemed to be that faculty were paid such relatively paltry salaries.

That preoccupation was understandable:  New York was expensive.  But it was also characteristic:  New York, and Columbia, were all about careers.  I had gone from working-class humanities students who rarely spoke of specific career goals, at CSULB, to classrooms full of mostly well-to-do students who wanted to be doctors and lawyers – and not, for the most part, because they loved people or justice, but because these were the most prestigious, powerful, and remunerative fields.  If you came to a school like this, you had probably already made a choice to focus on career rather than learning.  I guess this kind of orientation must seem obvious to those who have been raised to think in no other way.

Not that I was exempt.  Within a year after arriving, I had largely swallowed the belief that a person should pursue a highly paid and prestigious career.  Maybe my quick conversion to that perspective just shows that I had never before imagined such things for myself; or maybe it was more a case of misdirecting an impressionable young man.  There is probably some truth to both, but the latter seems more applicable because, as it turned out, I became disgusted with Wall Street pretty quickly, once I actually made it to a promising career opportunity.

But let me not get ahead of the story.  I was saying that Columbia did not generally exude an air of fascination with learning.  I did sympathize with that professor’s concern with paying the rent, but that just led me to wonder why the humanities departments of this university, at least, had to be located in such an expensive, careerist ambiance, where a love of books and knowledge could seem musty if not downright immature.

Throughout my time at Columbia College, I was still in the grip of the fantasy that good students had to read and understand the assigned texts, as distinct from following the professor’s hints as to what would be on the exam, supplemented with Cliffs Notes and previous years’ hand-me-down outlines.  It did take me a while to learn what a Columbia College political science education was all about.  Even in law school, I was still not “smart” enough to just read over the previous versions of the Torts exam that the professor had put on reserve for us in the library.  I was wasting hours working through my voluminous class notes and the actual Torts casebook, thinking that I was supposed to have a broad understanding of the subject.

I was also slow to relinquish the idea that higher education at its best is a place for creativity and imagination.  In the 1970s, especially, one might have expected such a place to have lingering remnants of 1960s funkiness.  But I guess that was over.  I didn’t find Columbia to be terribly supportive of the sorts of imaginative, take-a-chance efforts that I had encountered in Long Beach.  As someone said of the University of Michigan, when I was there in 2009-2010, at Columbia you hear “no” a lot.  It seemed that people in a highly competitive place can easily slip into a perverse pride, based not on their ability to recognize and develop human potential, but rather on their real or imagined superiority, their opportunities to swat down (indeed, to ridicule) people who are trying to make a start.

The place had some really rough edges.  For instance, I had never before encountered a university where fellow students would deliberately ram right into you as you walked through campus.  I don’t mean the occasional jostle or unintentional bump when navigating crowded spaces.  I mean recurrent situations where there are only two of you on the entire sidewalk, and somehow the other guy manages to bang into your shoulder as you pass.  It seemed especially likely to happen if I was walking along with a smile on my face, thinking about something good.

There was this tendency to belittle fellow students.  This wasn’t limited to my political science classes.  For example, when I called the Dean’s Office after a particularly difficult semester, to see if I had made it onto that semester’s Dean’s List, the student assistant who answered the phone asked my semester GPA and then sneered, “Not even close.”  This is obviously different from “Better luck next time.”  It was as if the school were trying to train us to be unpleasant.  One could say that’s New York as a whole, not just Columbia; but the point remains:  why foster or even tolerate attitudes and behaviors that are more likely to harm than help students, in their project of developing networks and preparing for the real world?

Needless to say, there were many students – a substantial majority, perhaps – who did not behave in such ways.  And I’m sure the students in some other fields would tend to be less nasty than the worst political science majors.  What seemed more pervasive was the attitude that you don’t matter.  This attitude could be indulged even where it would be self-defeating.  For example, the student newspaper, Spectator, was forever advertising for people to join the staff – to lend their unpaid assistance in various editorial and production processes.  I had briefly managed a printing shop, back in Long Beach.  It seemed like I might have some experience they would find useful.  So I went in a couple of times.  It’s not as though students were flocking to help out with the tedious typesetting tasks for which I was volunteering.  But the attitude was dismissive, as though they were doing me a favor by letting me be there.

Perhaps for these reasons, Columbia was somewhat bigoted.  Not toward the international types, to be sure.  Over a period of four or five years’ residence on 116th Street, I had Chinese-American, Pakistani, Korean, Ethiopian, Colombian, and Sri Lankan roommates, along with a variety of gay and lesbian friends.  All seemed to feel welcome at Columbia.  That’s not surprising:  it was a feather in our caps to be cosmopolitan – to gain exposure to, and to demonstrate tolerance toward, such peoples.  What was less fashionable was to treat the boring old Midwest, where my accent came from, as a place that was valid and important in its own right.  It seemed bizarre, when I later lived in Passaic, New Jersey, ten miles from the Lincoln Tunnel, to encounter people who had never been to Manhattan; but maybe this was not terribly different from those East Coast students whose family resources had allowed them to spend extended periods in Europe while rarely if ever traveling within the U.S.  It seemed that I – that we, middle America – just didn’t have much to offer them.  I might have been a relatively scarce representative of a huge portion of the U.S., but it often seemed that my culture was assumed to be uninformed and peripheral, if not downright invalid.

Finally, in a longer-term perspective, if I had not gone to Columbia College, I probably would not have gone into law.  Law proved to be a tremendous distraction from my actual interests and from my ultimate career direction.  Going to Columbia, and being influenced by the careerist mentality there, was probably the worst single thing that has happened in my career.  Without that, I would surely have pursued a PhD in a subject of interest, and would likely have made a career of it.

Praise of Columbia College

If I had not gone to Columbia College, I probably would not have gotten into Columbia Law School.  I say that on the basis of information, provided by the Dean’s office, indicating that students from the College were much more likely to get into Columbia’s law school than into any other top school.  Otherwise, I was getting into places like NYU, Northwestern, and Georgetown, but not into Harvard or Michigan.  A Georgetown degree would surely have exposed me to governmental rather than corporate opportunities, and I probably would have found those more palatable.  But at least I did get a chance to work on Wall Street, with my Columbia degree; and Columbia was more prestigious, for whatever that was worth.

There’s also the probability that, if I hadn’t gone to Columbia, I would never have lived in New York.  New York is an important city, in the U.S. and in the world, with enormous influence across multiple fields.  It was gratifying to be able to treat names like Madison Avenue and 42nd Street and the World Trade Center as parts of everyday life.  I commuted along and through such places on a daily basis, to various jobs I had during my 12 years in the New York-New Jersey region.  I got to see museums, to develop tastes in various forms of art, to be a daily visitor to Central Park, and so on.  Here, again, I had opportunities to do things that most people won’t.  Some may not want to, but there are plenty of others who do.  So I am grateful for that.

I also benefited from exposure to New York in another sense.  There are some truly crazy, cynical, exploitative, and mean people in this world.  In other places, they often find it advantageous to conceal their true nature.  Many do in New York as well.  But there are enough of them in NYC to achieve critical mass – to develop, that is, subcultures in which it becomes normal and even desirable to entertain destructive attitudes toward people.  In some circles, you can actually get to a place of considering yourself inferior for failing to evince a degree of sociopathy.  Let’s just say nobody will be surprised to hear that values and priorities can become distorted there.  You risk some permanent psychosocial impairment from exposure to that sort of thing, but you can also learn about yourself and the world.

While political science was not the best choice of major for me, at least it got me started into social science study.  I probably would have gravitated in that direction anyway, at CSULB or elsewhere, and as noted above I probably would have made a deeper and more successful career of it.  While political science at Columbia generally left a bad taste, it did expose me to some remarkable perspectives.  I don’t really know if, elsewhere, I would have had a senior seminar with a professor who announced his intention of converting all of us into practicing Marxists – a seminar in which some students already favored violent revolution in the U.S.  At the time, this sort of thing left me nonplussed; but since then, I have had occasion to think about it, to understand it a bit better.  It certainly broadened my worldview.

Columbia and New York endowed me with considerable arrogance.  That was helpful for purposes of meeting women (or at least a certain type of woman) and for impressing myself.  Over a period of years, it was surely more harmful than helpful in career and personal terms.  Over an even longer term, however, it gave me the opportunity to experience that sort of tendency, and then to question it, and ultimately to arrive at, perhaps, a more balanced view.  It seems that some confidence is helpful for purposes of persuading people (or at least Americans) that you know what you are talking about and are likely to be successful, but that it can be overdone.

It has been helpful to have the Columbia name on my résumé.  This is especially true of the Law School, but it also applies to the College.  For one thing, this gave me the sense that I was among the cream of the crop.  Whether that was true or not, it was convenient to think so.  All other things being equal, your Ivy League credential will tend to persuade people that you are smart, and perhaps that you are in some other sense special.  There is a countervailing risk that the Ivy League graduate will assume there is truth to these perceptions – that, in other words, s/he can succeed despite being actually unqualified, just because s/he is smart or special.  It can be tempting to rest on one’s laurels, treating prestige as a substitute for hard work and motivation.

I’ve published a book about the law school experience, so I won’t go into that here.  Focusing just on the College, as already hinted, it was good to be exposed to such international diversity.  You get a lot of that anyway, just by being in New York, but these international students were not Americanized foreigners:  these were people who had just come from the airport, relatively speaking, and who thus brought a real flavor of their part of the world with them.  In addition, as would probably be the case in most college educations, I acquired some practical skills in computers and writing, thanks to a couple of good courses in those areas.

Among my professors and fellow students, there were some who seemed destined for higher things.  It was instructive to be among such people – to see their dedication, confidence, and ability.  There were actually some like that at CSULB too; but with the Ivy League/New York backdrop, these people gave me a glimpse of just how far a person could go.  In that regard, as a criticism of myself and my background, I was not at all sure how far there was to go – of the specific steps that might take someone like me from being a nobody to being a big somebody.  My origins and ambitions were too humble for that.  Those people were in another world.  It would be some years before I would even begin to visualize how someone like me could actually climb that ladder, assuming I would have wanted to.


In retrospect, for purposes of getting an Ivy League credential, Columbia was perhaps as good as any.  For purposes of getting an in-depth New York experience, I think New York University might have been better.  For purposes of fitting into my larger life picture, any university on the East Coast was too far away from home; my network there eventually became tangential to my life developments.  I do appreciate the strengths of the Columbia undergraduate experience; but for me, for purposes of getting an education leading to an appropriate career, going there was a life-changing mistake.  If I had it to do again, choosing among universities that I have actually attended or have otherwise come to know, I would probably choose the University of Michigan as an undergraduate, and would ideally stay on as a grad student in a department whose ambiance and objectives would have provided a better fit.


2 Responses to “A Country Boy Went to Columbia College”

  1. Sheila Says:

    Thank you for this analysis of your experience in the education system. I’m currently a freshman at CSULB. I had the hopes of transferring to a more prestigious school as well (one was Columbia). This article really opened my eyes to the lasting effects college has on it student. I’ve realized that instead of focusing on the destination (a prestigious college for example), I should focus more on the journey (learning and getting great marks in my studies). Thank you again for this article.

    • Ray Woodcock Says:

      Sheila, you’re welcome. I’m glad you found merit in this post. But there’s always more to the story. Your life and times are surely very different from mine. I’d say you’ll be best served to keep looking around, trying different experiences, asking questions (including asking the same question of different people). In all events, I wish you well.

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