Let us now praise the importance of asking questions

Measuring the value of conversations and convergence in a college education

Photo by Richard Asinof

The view from Hampshire College looking out at the Holyoke Range on a summer's evening.

Image courtesy of Skinner State Park website

The view from the Holyoke Range looking out at the Connecticut River valley.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/14/19
The story about how conversations and convergences with Charles Mingus, John D. Rockefeller III, John Updike and Anais Nin changed my educational pursuits.
What schools in Rhode Island, both high schools and colleges, teach students about Pablo Neruda, Charles Mingus and Anais Nin as part of their curriculum? What is the process by which we learn to tell our personal stories about where we belong?

One of the experiences from Hampshire was paddling a canoe down the Connecticut River, from Sunderland to Hadley, under a full moon, at flood stage, the swift river waters dark against the moonlit sky, a different kind of encounter without much conversation, save for the natural sounds that surrounded us.

Editors Note: This past week, I received an injection to relieve severe pain in my back in Boston, requiring me to interrupt my normal work schedule, losing three days. The good news is that the shot appears to have greatly relieved the inflammation.

As a result, as a third story in this edition, I am including an essay written four years ago, musing on the value of my college education, about the nature of learning. It is, in many ways, about the process of how we learn to interact with the world around us. Thanks for your understanding and indulgence.

AMHERST, Mass. – A series of conversations and convergences with an unlikely quartet – Charles Mingus, Anais Nin, John Updike, and John D. Rockefeller III – helped to shape my educational pursuits in college.

They occurred in the shadows of an East-West volcanic mountain range, bordered by the beach of a glacial lake, which in the late 20th century had been repurposed as the Hampshire College campus, amidst farms, apple orchards and frog ponds.

As a Hampshire College student, in 1971, I had an improbable dinner of moose meat stew with Rockefeller, one of the world’s richest men, at an organic duck farm; in 1972, I served as the catalyst in Anais Nin becoming the college’s graduation speaker; in 1973, I interviewed Mingus for a college TV news show; and, in 1973, Updike took me aside in a Northampton bar to ask me an “important” question.

I had the opportunity to recall and reflect upon these occurrences on June 6, 2015, on the occasion of attending the 45th reunion of Hampshire College. [Reunions are marked by the year when students entered.]

As a member of the first class of 251 pioneers who entered in the fall of 1970, we shared unbreakable bonds as a band of brothers and sisters who created a new college from scratch.

It was never an easy journey. Each year a flood of new students arrived, and the precarious paths we had carefully carved out were soon trampled and forever changed. To survive, we had to learn how to adapt and be nimble to overcome the jigsaw puzzle that was Hampshire College, where the shapes and colors of the pieces kept changing.

We learned how to laugh, to live, to love and to thrive in an ever-changing, iterative world – skills, traits and values that served us well.

No matter what our differences in race, sex, creed and wealth, we were family – and we still remain a family today – if much grayer, older, hopefully wiser, and still hopeful. It didn’t mean we all had to like each other – but we learned how to respect one other.

Hampshire College, as some may know, is an experimental liberal arts college, part of a five-college community with Amherst, Smith and Mt. Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

When we arrived in 1970, the buildings were barely finished, and the challenges of making a college beyond what was envisioned in a book were daunting. Yes, it was true, there were no grades; you were responsible for creating your own exams as a way to prove your competencies.

And yes, there were endless controversies about things that were hard to explain to outsiders: the disappearance of an unwanted red sculpture, which was dismantled and hidden; a passionate argument about whether to name an academic building after the suffragist Emma Goldman or the poet Emily Dickinson; a wait-and-see attitude about whether or not to accept a gift of $25,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to improve the environment; whether or not to rename the School of Language and Communications by dropping Communications because, according to the linguists on faculty, language implied communication; and whether Playboy should be permitted to photograph Hampshire students as part of a planned spread on college co-eds. Just saying…

In terms of memories preserved, it’s worth noting that Hampshire embraced a different kind of tradition: one building and three residential clusters at Hampshire are named not after donors, but rather the names of the four towns that were drowned when the Quabbin Reservoir was created in the 1930s to provide drinking water to Boston – Dana, Enfield, Prescott, and Greenwich.

The first college newspaper was inexplicably named Climax, and the school’s motto, Non Satis Scire, to know is not enough, was changed on the masthead to Satis Satis, enough is enough. [I admit to being a founding editor.]

We had to endure a lot of terrible jokes about Hampshire, and we learned to laugh – and to laugh at ourselves.

More than four decades later, Hampshire is still going strong, and its excellent course of studies is much respected in the real world, if not the academic world. Quite simply, it worked – and it continues to work, under the current leadership of President Jonathan Lash.

The tensions between Hampshire’s vision, and that of more traditional educational pathways, still exist. I see it as a healthy give-and-take, much like the call-and-response between Jerome Kern’s classic, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, “All the things you are,” and Charles Mingus’ playful retort, “All the things you could be by now if Sigmund Freud’s wife was your mother.”

Ah Um
As a fourth-year student at Hampshire, in the fall of 1973, I took a course in television production, working on a news show to be broadcast every week. My first assignment was an interview with Charles Mingus, who was performing at Amherst College. Max Roach, I believe, may have sat in on drums with the band. [I’m still not sure how I convinced the professor that this should be the very first segment in a news show that was to debut as part of the cable link up with the town of Amherst.]

It was not a great interview; prodded to the point of becoming angry, Mingus did finally talk a bit about his relationship with Fats Navarro, a trumpet player, and how their conversations were at the heart of a recent autobiography he had written. More importantly, the segment contained about six minutes from the concert. I have often wondered: did the tape, in some arcane video format, still exist? If it did, what a historical trove it might prove to be.

The answer is maybe. At the reunion, I learned that Hampshire had recently hired an archivist to catalogue and digitize its library of old tapes. The folks at Hampshire were excited to learn about its content and possible existence.

The second news segment of that first news program that I helped to produce was of a professor reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda, shortly after his death, with photographs of the Pinochet coup in Chile as a visual backdrop.

I often have wondered: is there a high-school or college curriculum today in American History that teaches both Mingus and Neruda?

Would students listening to the “Original Fables of Faubus,” or having the song performed by the school’s jazz band, change for the better the dialogue on race?

Would having to read out loud Neruda’s “United Fruit” and “The great tablecloth” in English and Spanish, change the conversation about immigration?

A graduation talk by Anais Nin
In early 1972, as a second-year student at Hampshire [and taking a poetry class at UMass with J.R. Reed, who would go on to become a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, and a writing class with Harvey Swados], I was bowled over by the newly published diaries of Anais Nin. They revealed an intimate, lyrical narrative voice so different from most mainstream writing. To write in first person and to be confident in tone but not overbearing in ego was a revelation.

As a young writer, Nin’s style offered a seductive antidote to the overbearing male visions of Mailer, Roth, Updike and Bellow. The writing had a sensuous quality of self-discovery.

In hopes of finding someone to share my excitement, I shared the diaries with a young woman, Lee, a senior transfer student. [Hampshire smartly had a class of senior transfer students each year, known as fellows, to speed its accreditation process along, so it would have a graduating class in each of its first years.] I wanted to be able to talk about the diaries with Lee, also a writer, and truth be told, I did have an unrequited crush on her.

But things didn’t quite turn out as I had anticipated. Lee’s boyfriend at the time, Paul, another senior fellow, was the one who became captivated by the diaries. He decided to write Nin and invite her to speak at Hampshire’s second graduation in May of 1972, which Nin accepted. I was the catalyst, so to speak.

I neither got the conversation I wanted, nor the relationship with the young woman I sought, but I learned a new kind of narrative in which to write – as well as its limitations in truthfulness and politics.

A dinner with JDR III
In December of 1970, John D. Rockefeller III decided to reach out to young people by giving $25,000 to improve the human, social and physical environment of the Connecticut River Valley. The announcement, held at Hampshire College, resulted in a committee of 15 students – three students from each of the five colleges – being formed to decide what to do with the money. I was chosen as one of the students from Hampshire College.

After more than a year of deliberation, the money ended up going to underwrite the start up of the Western Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which eventually was folded into MassPIRG.

But, at the 45th reunion, I found myself with another Hampshire student who had served on the committee, retelling the story of our dinner in 1971 with John D. Rockefeller III, held in Belchertown at an organic duck farm, where the meal was moose meat stew, from a moose that had been illegally poached in Maine [one of the housemates worked as an undercover cop with the Maine State Police, and after capturing a poacher, he got to keep the meat.]

I was late to the gathering, having attended an anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., traveling with other Hampshire students in the Outdoor Program’s VW van. There were competing agendas about when to get back to campus, so I ended up having had to hitch a ride from Amherst to Belchertown.

When I arrived, I found myself sitting next to Rockefeller, who wanted to engage me in a conversation about the Vietnam War. We argued back and forth, as I recounted in some detail the illegal origins of the war. [I had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector, so I knew the history of the conflict, and countered every one of Rockefeller’s arguments, to his surprise.]

I doubt whether Rockefeller’s $25,000 contribution to the Connecticut Valley Committee changed the world very much, although as the old chestnut goes, it’s hard to tell which ax blow felled the tree. I also doubt whether my conversation with Rockefeller changed his – or my – views very much. But the conversation did happen, and we both listened to each other in earnest, and that’s important.

Rockefeller, it seemed, had been prodded by his advisors to address the concerns of young people, as a way of building a bridge between generations around a shared value on the environment. What he got was something unintended – a down-to-earth conversation with young students, a process that he seemed to enjoy – as if he had been set free of the constraints of being surrounded by flunkies.

At the time, I saw Rockefeller as a kind of pathetic figure, one of the world’s richest, most powerful men, but unable to stop the Earth from spinning away from his sense of destiny and control, as if his own humanity had finally caught up with him.

In today’s ideologically divided world, where climate change and environment have been caught up in a civil war of religious intensity, I have reconsidered my view: how many of the top Wall Street bankers today would be willing to listen to students at an organic duck farm, eating moose meat stew?

First there is a mountain
One of the more memorable classes I took at Hampshire in my first year was an actual mapping of the campus by its geologic and biologic features – something that none of the architects or the founders had ever managed to do. The course was team taught by two of Hampshire’s most iconic professors – John Foster and Ray Coppinger.

Foster and Coppinger led us students on a hike up to the ridge of the Holyoke Range and asked us to explain to them how an east-west mountain range had been created. We were stumped. It turned out that there were two geologic forces at work: an ice-age glacial pond that pushed to the edge of the range, and volcanic forces that ruptured beneath a weakness in the tectonic plates, as I recall.

A friend once described the Holyoke Range as the last barrier to the megalopolis that sprawls from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Another friend envisioned that the gap in the range, known as The Notch, had been created during a time when giants roamed the Earth, and one, fishing from atop Mount Tom, had gotten his hook stuck and pulled and pulled until the mountains moved.

Whatever the explanation, the natural beauty of the Hampshire campus, nestled into the edge of the Holyoke Range, on the border of a glacial lake, is still breathtaking on early summer evening at dusk.

Perhaps, more importantly, along with Norton Juster’s course on the “Man-Made Environment,” what it taught me was a reverence for understanding the places where we live as being more than the houses and buildings we construct. It is about the interrelationships of systems.

A question from Updike
In the fall of 1973, Updike came to give a reading from his new play, “As Buchanan Lay Dying,” a turgid drama written in 19th century Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. After the reading, I met up with Updike and some of the Smith student sponsors of the talk at Zelda’s, a local bar in Northampton.

Having just interviewed Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist who was teaching at UMass, I asked Updike about the letter he had sent to Achebe, puzzled by the way that Achebe had killed off his protagonist the first chapter. Achebe had written back, saying that in African society, the community took precedence over the individual.

I don’t remember what Updike said in response; I think he may never have had a chance to answer, because someone else jumped into the conversation. A few minutes later, at the bar, where we were both ordering drinks, Updike leaned over and said: I have a question I want to ask you.

I leaned forward, in anticipation.

“Do you think my daughter should go to Hampshire College?” Updike asked, in all earnestness.

“Does she like to work in a structured or unstructured manner?”

Structured, Updike replied.

“Then she shouldn’t go to Hampshire; she wouldn’t like it.

That was the extent of the “important” question and answer with Updike.

What gets documented
The takeaway from this tale is that what’s important about the way we learn – by asking questions, by joining conversations, by listening, by a willingness to challenge the status quo, to compete not for grades but for knowledge, by being part of a community – is still of work of art, still in progress.

If history is made not by what happens, but by what gets documented, consider this a document to Hampshire’s success.

What stayed with so many of us in the first class was a sense of valuing what was important in life – the relationships, a sense of belonging to a place and a neighborhood, the quality of life itself, the environment and the world around us and the people who inhabit it. For sure, there are many Hampshire graduates who have achieved great success, notoriety and fame, but for many of us, that’s not what mattered.

I, for one, will never be one of the graduates whose success story will be harvested to sell the college. When recently asked about my accomplishments, I talked about my successes in being a parent and in being a neighbor.

A lot of what I learned was perseverance in face of bad bureaucracy, how not to get stuck when things go wrong, and how to improvise solutions when things do not work.


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