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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente: What I learned at university Add to ...

More years ago than I care to think, my mother drove me to the small town five hours from Toronto where I was about to start university. Everything I owned was stuffed in the back of her Volkswagen Beetle. I was anxious and excited. I was worried that everyone would be smarter than me, to say nothing of more worldly and more sexually experienced. I hoped I would like my roommate. I hoped she wouldn’t be too tall.

The thing to know about university is that it will be among the most intense experiences of your life. You’ll make friends there you’ll keep forever. You’ll probably discover something you’re passionate about (and if you don’t, why are you there?). Fifty years from now, decades of your life will have vanished down the memory hole without a trace. But you’ll remember certain scenes from university as if they’d happened yesterday. You won’t be able to recall what courses you took or what you learned in them. It’s what you learned outside the classroom that will stick.

To my dismay, my roommate, Patty, was 5 foot 10. But we liked each other anyway. She was a science major, so I rarely saw her because she was always in the lab, fooling around with mitochondria. We roomed together on and off for the next four years.

To today’s students, some parts of my university experience would seem as remote as the Pleistocene epoch. The digital age lay in the distant future. Instead of a laptop, I had a small typewriter, whose keys jammed if I typed too fast. I regarded Wite-Out as the most important technological breakthrough of the decade. Our dorm had one phone at the end of the hall – which, apart from writing a letter, was the only way of contacting one’s parents. I went for weeks without speaking to them, and that was fine with me. For all they knew of my life, I might as well have been on Mars.

For the first two years, it was mandatory for students to live in residence. Men and women lived in different dorms, and curfews were enforced. Men were only allowed in women’s rooms on Sunday afternoons. You were supposed to keep the door partly open, and three feet on the floor. Nobody handed out condoms during orientation week.

Yet, in some ways, we were less protected than students are now. Many of the rules governing campus conduct today didn’t exist yet. No one mentioned sexism, racism or homophobia. Sexual fraternization between students and faculty was fairly common. One friend wound up marrying her philosophy TA. Another friend eventually married her law professor. My poetry professor (who declaimed his own verse to us in a thrilling baritone) wound up marrying one of his much younger students. As the Greeks and everyone else have always known, the relationship between teacher and student can be intensely erotic, and the power is by no means entirely on the teacher’s side.

By my second year in university, the ’60s revolution had arrived. Three girlfriends and I moved out of the dorm into a big old one-room flat. One day, I ran into my freshman adviser in the street. I barely recognized him. He had swapped his tweed jacket and tie for an open-necked shirt and love beads, and his thinning hair had grown down to his shoulders. By my third year, our poetry professor was smoking dope with us. Patty’s boyfriend began supplementing his income by dealing LSD and pot. We seldom drank (we were the art-house, not frat-house, crowd), but every so often we’d get a craving for jelly doughnuts at 3 a.m. My friend Trish was famous because she could eat more than anyone.

I adored Trish. She was smart, athletic and outgoing. We were soulmates and best friends forever. Then I met a guy who owned the campus bookstore. I wasn’t very interested in boys my age, but he was a worldly older man of 28 or 29. He asked me over to his place and read me poetry by candlelight. Naturally, I was completely hooked. To impress him, I told him all about my amazing roommate Trish. Soon after that, I got home early one day from class and discovered Trish and the bookstore owner in the bathtub.

I was devastated, and moved out. For several months, Trish and I wrote each other lengthy letters full of recriminations and remorse, none of which, thank God, seem to have survived. I decided I hadn’t moved far enough away, so I took my broken heart to Italy, where I spent a semester immersed in the Renaissance. I came back older and wiser, with a passion for Donatello that endures to this day.

There were other disappointments, too – intellectual ones. I had planned to minor in philosophy, which required me to take a course in logic. Logic was highly analytical. It was the first subject that I couldn’t master with a bit of effort. (To be sure, I’d been careful to avoid all the other ones.) Logic humiliated me. I just couldn’t get it. That’s when I learned what it feels like to bang your head against the ceiling. This is an essential experience for those to whom most things come easily.

The most important things you learn at university will last you all your life. Mine go like this:

  • Rewriting something always makes it better.
  • You can go two nights without sleep, but not three.
  • Most people you’ll meet are just as sexually insecure as you are.
  • Ideas are intoxicating and unlike beer, they won’t give you a hangover.
  • Men come and men go, but great art is forever.
  • Everything you really need can fit in the back of a Volkswagen.
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