About to take my daughter to walk through the campus at Columbia University.
I have never been and know little about the august Ivy League university.
I am tempted to brag to my daughter that had I applied to Columbia I probably wouldn’t have gotten in. Leaving open the possibility that I could have. Even though that isn’t really true. But it sounds better and is a basically honest description of my relationship to the University as a potential applicant 33 years ago.
In fact, I had a similar relationship with all other top tier universities but today we are focusing on Columbia.
When I think of Columbia University, I think of Mortimer Adler. What’s in a name, right? Well, if you wanted to make up a fictional character who was the public face of the study of philosophy in the second half of the 20th Century, Mortimer Adler would be a believable fictional name. But it was the actual name of the real person who largely played that role.
Adler got his doctorate from Columbia and was affiliated with the university in various ways for most of his professional life. He was one of the editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica and helped create the Great Books series and served as a life-long advocate for liberal arts education generally, the discipline of philosophy specifically, and the life of the mind for all citizens.
Some marginalized him as being more of a public personality for philosophy than a “real” philosopher himself. But what is philosophy anyway? Is it really primarily about who published what theory? Or is it more of promoting the questioning of every premise and answer in an effort to get closer to the truth –and the promoting of that discipline, a la Socrates and the Socratic method. On this latter measure, Mortimer Adler, was a great an influential philosopher of his time.
And by being exposed to him through his interviews and writings, Mortimer Adler encouraged me to pursue the study of philosophy in college and to be unafraid to think critically; and question assumptions and not be afraid of where those questions may lead.
So, as my daughter and I visit Columbia’s campus and try to snag a T-Shirt or sweat shirt bearing the school name, I’ll say a quiet thank you to Mortimer Adler for promoting the elusive but vitally important benefits of thinking for oneself. And for me being one of many millions of people Adler influenced to be, in their own imperfect and limited way, a philosopher in our modern world.
A modern world that sometimes seems to think it has advanced beyond the need for candid and robust philosophical analysis, but in fact is the lesser for such short-sighted biases.
Things I fear I might overhear while walking alone through Hell’s Kitchen area in NYC.
“Look over your shoulder. I think it is one of those clueless white male heterosexuals from middle America. I have never seen one before.
My Gosh. They look just like they do on television except shorter and pasty looking.”
In case you didn’t know this already (Or, Things I overheard today in the Broadway show section of NYC)
“The are basically two factions of people in the country right now.
There are those who love Matilda and hate Kinky Boots.
And there are those who love Kinky Boots and hate Matilda.
You have to figure out which group you are in.”
Said a young man who was working near the ticket counter and answering a question from two women trying to decide which ticket to buy.
I thought he was going to say the two groups are those who support ACA and those who oppose it. But I am from KY.
I haven’t researched enough to say confidently which group I belong to but I think it is probably Kinky Boots. I have never liked the name Matilda.
Here’s the thing about people who wear T-shirts from elite universities they didn’t attend….
Yesterday I got to visit Columbia University. I wanted to tour the campus with my daughter and buy a T-shirt. The first thing you notice is that the actual students attending Columbia don’t wear T-shirts that say Columbia.
The first student I spoke to had a French accent and was wearing a pull-over shirt with a tiny French symbol I didn’t recognize (probably France’s equivalent of Polo that they think is superior to our Polo symbol but other people just roll their eyes at). We were lost and I asked him if he knew where Columbia University was located. He was obviously highly intelligent because he instantly grinned condescendingly and pointed directly across the street to a giant entrance gate with a huge university behind it. “There it is,” he said, “I am a student there.” I smiled (not condescendingly) and said, “Oh. Yeah. Thank you. I obviously wasn’t a student here.”
Once inside we walked across the campus and then began looking for a place to buy a Columbia T-shirt. I approached a distinguished looking woman and asked where the book store was located because I wanted to buy a Columbia University T-shirt. Adding, “You know, so people will think I attended Columbia,” I said facetiously.
She seemed taken aback and pointed to the building to my left and responded, “Try down there.”I have never bought a Columbia T-shirt but that’s because I only got a master’s degree here” as she pointed to the Journalism School we were standing just outside of.
I didn’t say anything but was thinking, “She must not have made very good grades if she is too ashamed to even get a Columbia T-shirt after she got a master’s degree at Colubmia. But that was her problem. I was undaunted. Mostly, I guess, because I made good grades in college and graduate school and figured if I had made really good grades at a really good high school and gotten involved in a whole lot of high school activities that impresses college admission’s officers and had a much higher SAT and ACT score, I could have gotten in Columbia University myself and may have done pretty well. So, for those reasons, I was completely comfortable with the idea of buying and wearing a Columbia T-shirt.
Just so you know I am not kidding myself, I would never buy or wear a T-shirt from MIT. I don’t think I could have made it there. I also would never buy a T-shirt from Duke University but not because I couldn’t have made it there under similar circumstances described above. But because students there are required to pretend they are superior to all other college students and I could never have pulled that off. While on the subject, I also would never buy a T-shirt from the University of Alabama. No particular reason. Just, why bother?
So, here’s the thing. When you were a T-shirt with the name of an elite university you didn’t attend no one really believes you actually went there. In fact, it’s a dang near certainty you didn’t. But that’s not why I wear them. I wear them because it gives the message that “I may not have gone to this university ….but if I had made really good grades at a really good high school and gotten involved in a whole lot of high school activities that impresses college admission’s officers and had a much higher SAT and ACT score, I could have gotten in Columbia University myself and may have done pretty well.”
And that is enough for me. And worth the $19.95
(Note: Later I will post a picture of me doing something smart looking, like thinking, in my new Columbia University T-shirt)
Being in NYC means never having to wonder if you look normal.
I have now visited the campuses of both Harvard and Columbia.
And have the T-shirts to prove it.
On Harvard’s campus it is all about Harvard. You feel you have have walked into hallowed ground preserved for the chosen elite who have trouble relating to the rest of us. The experience is akin to scaling Mt Olympus. Only Harvard Yard lore is more actual than mythic.
Columbia’s campus. by contrast, feels like it is still all about NYC–but that you have wondered onto a chic and sophisticated suburb.
Columbia is a special place, of course. But not Mount Olympus sacred. More like Mount Olympuses artsy and eclectic cousin who moved to the city–where the action is and because they are more at home walking through gritty streets than idyllic yards.
If you are on the 15th floor at a NY Hotel and the elevators are extremely slow and after you have been waiting patiently for over four minutes and a couple joins you at the elevators and they were the same couple that checked in before you last night and asked endless tedious questions about the room before finally checking in, and when the elevator door opens it is literally packed with people with room for only one or two more persons and the rude couple saunters in front of you and squeezes on the elevator leaving you to wait for the next elevator even though you were there first, by at least four minutes, and even pushed the elevator button, is that considered rude behavior?
It is impossible to be rude while in New York.
For anyone who questions the line in the song New York, New York “I want to wake up in that city that never sleeps,” well, it is true.
New York City really doesn’t appear to ever sleep. I stayed up very late the last couple of nights to see for myself. Like staying awake to catch Santa and his reindeer on Christmas morning.
I never did catch St Nick or Rudolph or even see any elves for that matter….but I can confirm that NYC was still humming along last night (technically, this morning) into the wee hours.
And I thought I may have seen a elf couple and someone dressed like Santa Claus and at least three of what appeared to be glowing noses. I kinda hit the jackpot!