Our correspondent wades through the morass of Reunion 2007, last weekend’s get-together for 60 years of Columbia and Barnard grads.
The annual tri-college reunion brings with it myriad opportunities for the enterprising summer student. For the social climber, it is a chance to establish some gainful contacts with potentially loaded and influential alumni. For the scavenger–and particularly for the scavenger who treats the Cottage’s “free wine with every entrée” arrangement with the deathly seriousness it deserves–it is an opportunity to drink on the university’s dime (Alma Mater might suck at reigning in her financial aid officials, but she can throw a hell of a wine and cheese). For the sarcastic and overly-analytical set (bloggers, for instance) the reunion was a chance to interact with a rapidly fossilizing generation of Columbians for whom race quotas were a reality and co-ed floors an absurd hypothetical; to gape in horror at what you may very well be like one day, and to shudder at the prospect of something as presently abstract as a 50-year (or even 5-year) college reunion.
Because Columbia will try to pitch Manhattanville to anybody with 15 minutes to spare, one of the first events on the schedule was a briefing on the proposed campus. For this, Roone Arledge cinema was practically empty–not so shocking when one considers that pretty much all of the reunion’s attendees will be dead by the time the campus is completed. While the alumni’s lack of curiosity on such issues was notable, the briefing brought to light problems that have been heretofore ignored: the proposed campus is an architectural nightmare. With the briefing concluded, I wandered into Hamilton Hall, where in typical Columbia fashion the alumni were bonding over some higher-level intellectual discourse.
Professor Roosevelt Mantas’s scheduled discussion on Neitzschian morals had drown a crowd. The Core Curriculum office’s conference room was packed, and a cynic could fairly deduce that our alumni are more concerned with Nietzsche than with the future of their own university–either that or the predominantly bald, gray, white and male crowd was pining for one more hour of Columbia-style pedantry. “Psychiatrist of the primitive man…rigorously non-prescriptive…traditional discursive register”–one wonders how many decades of separation it takes for such vomitus to have an even distantly therapeutic effect.
But for many of the alumni, this might have been the first chance since their last class reunion five years earlier to flex some of their Columbia-toned intellectual muscle–one participant claimed that he had read most of Nietzsche’s works while an undergraduate, and another railed against the assumedly non-Columbian cretins intent on ruining Nietzsche’s greatest quotes (Come to find out, “God is dead” has nothing to do with atheism. Who woulda thunk it?).
It occurred to me that the participants weren’t as exhilarated by the didacticism of it all as they were by a chance to step back into the Columbia bubble, a suspicion that was partly confirmed by a class of 67’ grad and 3rd generation Columbian I spoke to after the event. “Ours called itself ‘the cleverest class,’” he said, adding that he knew people who had “gone to Harvard and knew nothing.”
OK: so the alumni are nostalgia-craven, socially passive, Nietzsche-reading intellectual snobs. But what about their kids? To find out, I infiltrated the “Camp Columbia” tent, a vaguely Coney Island-themed setup serving cheap white wine (not to the kids, of course. For some reason the place was flooded with adults) and various varieties of trefe.
I was hesitant to approach the little bastards, but luckily recent grad Caitlin Shure, C ’07 had been tapped as a reunion volunteer, and her expertise in neuroscience seemed to be serving her well. ”This is Luca” she said, coddling an angelic boy of 8 or 9. Although he “doesn’t want to talk,” Shure had brilliantly deduced that he’s “a li
ttle bit on the metrosexual side”–the giveaway being the large pink flower painted on his left cheek, and the fact that he had seen “The Music Man” and not “The Godfather” (I’m going to assume that he’s named after Luca Brasi. So there).
When asked if she recoiled at the freakish glimpse of her future, Columbia-legacied offspring, Shure wisely replied that she didn’t want to have kids. Interesting, I thought–we could all opt for sterility and kill off legacy once and for all, perhaps a good thing in light of the vapid, non-communicative face-painted terrors polluting South Lawn.
Bored with the extremely young, I thought I’d try my hand at interacting with the extremely old. So after slipping past the volunteers guarding the computer science lounge, I had a look around the Golden Lion’s Club–the official hangout for graduates from 1957 and earlier. The lounge was empty, save for a few older-looking gentlemen who seemed to be keeping to themselves. It didn’t take long to strike up a conversation.
The alumnus didn’t want his name used, but he had a great story. He had grown up in an immigrant household in the North Bronx–he spoke Yiddish at home, studied hard in high school, and went to CUNY’s then-prestigious engineering school (in the late 40s it was considered better than MIT’s) right up until the Korean war intervened in his education. Back then, opportunities for lower-class Jewish students at prestigious schools were still scarce–but when his army service ended, he found himself with a free ride at Columbia engineering. He explained to me that his presence at the reunion was out of gratitude to the network of Columbians who had helped him over the years, and a way of thanking the school for giving him a chance to do something he could not have done a generation earlier: be a member of that network in the first place.
For a man wearing the same suit he’d been graduated in fifty years earlier, Columbia represented inclusiveness and opportunity, and not Nietzsche-quoting 3rd-generation legacies and their irritating metrosexual kids. So if the Columbians of the past can tell us anything about the Columbians of the future, it’s that there’s a very good chance our school’s pedantry and social neuroses aren’t the only things we’ll take away from our experiences here. Or at least we can hope so.