Saturday, August 8, 2009

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (ii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (11)

During Freshman Week, there was a big meeting in the Low Library administration building rotunda, where a professor told us that we were a “special group of people” and “the nation’s future elite.” A well-dressed “tweed”/preppie, in a suit and tie, who was the student coordinator of Freshman Week, told us to “use New York City as your campus” and he urged us to “look into the faces of people on the subway.” At a student union building reception for freshmen in Ferris Booth Hall’s Hewitt Lounge, punch was served and the friendly Dean of Columbia College, David B. Truman, shook our hands, individually.

A mini-tour of Greenwich Village was offered one evening. A group of us freshmen were escorted on the Broadway IRT local from 116th Street to the Christopher Street station. After leaving the Christopher Street station, we were led around the West Village for a few hours but were not shown any of the gay bars.

Our meals during Freshman Week were eaten together in John Jay Hall cafeteria. I would often find myself spontaneously involved in a conversation with a freshman from some place like Tyler, Texas.

I was interested in getting to know African-American students at Columbia. So I spent some time during Freshman Week looking through my Freshman Directory book, which pictured all the freshmen, and noticed where the small number of African-American students in the class had gone to high school. I hoped that Columbia College would be a place where I could form inter-racial friendships. In 1965 Black nationalism was still not dominant in liberal and left Civil Rights Movement circles. Inter-racial friendships and love relationships were not yet discouraged for political organizing reasons.

The white student left at Columbia was nearly invisible during most of Freshman Week. Prior to one of the Freshman Week events, George tried to sell the freshmen who were lined up to go inside Ferris Booth Hall some kind of leftist newspaper. The newspaper claimed that Columbia University was controlled by Wall Street corporation directors, was nothing more than an instrument of these corporations and was not really an institution concerned about the pursuit of knowledge.

George wasn’t able to interest any of us in buying his newspaper. From the freshmen on the line who bothered to notice him, there was much snickering and some taunting of him for being a “commie.” After glancing at his newspaper’s headlines and listening to his sales pitch, I thought to myself that George’s view of Columbia was intellectually simplistic and inaccurate, and that it was ridiculous to argue that Columbia University was “just another U.S. multiversity like Berkeley.” But the longer I attended Columbia, the more my own views about Columbia began to change.

The highlight of Freshman Week came near the end of the week, when representatives of various student clubs spoke to us in Wollman Auditorium and tried to use sexist humor and sexual innuendo to interest us in joining their clubs. Most of the freshmen cheered and laughed all night, as the junior and senior Columbia College tweed-preppie-types tried to demonstrate how hedonistic and sexually virile and sophisticated they and their clubs were.

But these Columbia student leaders didn’t strike me as being the kind of men I wished to emulate. If they were “Columbia Men,” I was not interested in being a “Columbia Man.” The anti-intellectualism of this student club recruitment night, which was called “King’s Crown Activities Night,” undercut the credibility of the pious words which Columbia administrators and professors had thrown at us during the more solemn previously-held Freshman Week events. Club night seemed to indicate that what the all-male Columbia College student body found most important was the sexual conquest of Barnard women, not the pursuit of knowledge and truth, or the love of other people. Columbia students seemed no more intellectual in their personal priorities than their male counterparts at less selective universities, like Indiana University or the University of Miami in Florida.

The one student speaker at this “King’s Crown Activities Night” who impressed me was the representative of Columbia’s ACTION group. Along with student demonstrators from a wide range of campus civil rights, peace and left-wing Movement groups (like Congress of Racial Equality, the recently-formed Independent Committee on Vietnam and the Young Socialist Alliance), some ACTION members had participated in an anti-war, anti-NROTC demonstration in the spring of 1965, which the Columbia Administration had broken up by calling in New York City cops to arrest the less than 150 demonstrators. The ACTION speaker was the only student who mentioned the need to oppose the war in Viet Nam on campus at this club night. His presentation was interrupted by jeers from right-wing Columbia freshmen and by much heckling.

When it came time to sign up for campus activities, I signed ACTION’s mailing list. ACTION, however, became defunct early in Fall 1965 because most hard-core Columbia and Barnard activists joined the Independent Committee on Viet Nam (ICV).

I also signed up to be a Columbia Citizenship Council volunteer. I volunteered to tutor every week at Charles Evans Hughes High School at West 18th St. and 7th Ave., and to work as a group counselor in an African-American church on 104th St., between Amsterdam Ave. and Columbus Ave. Citizenship Council provided me with a way to make contact with people who lived in the neighborhoods around Harlem.

Because I saw myself as a writer-activist, I went to the freshmen recruiting meeting of Columbia’s literary magazine, The Columbia Review. During the previous academic year, the Columbia Administration had tried to curtail the campus distribution of the magazine because too many of the literary articles contained too many explicit references to sex. But the Columbia Review people seemed more snobbish, less dynamic, more self-centered, less socially concerned and less warm than either the Citizenship Council people or the ACTION recruiters. So I didn’t get involved with the Columbia Review crowd.

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