What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I came to Columbia with no understanding about college life. In high school I was a good student, able to get by with little effort. Most of my studying occurred on public transit on the way to school. I had the social skills to get along with the gymnastics coach, so despite my lack of talent, I became the captain of my school’s team. I didn’t work too hard on my school studies because I was more interested in reading and studying whatever interested me. I wanted to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I was halfway through that project by the time I arrived on campus. In my spare time, I had taught myself some calculus and was messing around with number theory. At my College interview I asked the admissions officer if there would be a lot of homework or would I have enough time to continue educating myself. I thought that I could continue being a smart kid who got by on his wits.
Well, that did not work out too well. I quickly found out that I was just another smart kid in the middle of a pack of smart kids who, unlike me, worked hard to excel. I had not developed the discipline in high school to compete at their level. Not only did they study harder than I did, some had outstanding abilities. A half dozen placed into the highest level of freshman mathematics, where they did work that was above my comprehension.
It got worse before it got better.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
Before going on, I would like to apologize to everybody we antagonized with our carousing. I will not mention any names. The people I have stayed in touch with after graduation have all gone on to be productive and creative members of society. While I would not be embarrassed to admit to alcohol or marijuana infractions — which may or may not have occurred in 909 New Hall (now Carman) — there might be other residents and guests of that suite who would object. I would especially like to apologize to the residents of 907, who had to endure listening to our noisy late-night meetings.
My suitemates were all graduates of top prep schools, where they had received intensive and individualized instruction. I was a public school graduate who had charmed an admissions officer into accepting me. By the first grading period I was called in to talk to my advisor about what I had to do to avoid flunking out. I assured him that I could turn things around. And I did. I graduated magna cum nothing, but I graduated and was even accepted to medical school — but that’s a story for my medical school alumni journal.
What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?
I remember all my Core classes, both my experience during class as well as the effect those classes had on me later in life. As I mentioned, I was unprepared for college-level classes. Beyond that, I could not keep up with the readings. I was and still am a slow reader. I constantly stop to think about what I have read. Doing that, I am reminded about other topics that are related to the subject and then I am off on tangential ideas. This does not help when reading The Iliad for the first time. In 1963, I never finished The Iliad or most of the other readings for Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization. Fortunately, I read enough to have some ideas that allowed me to write some creative blue book essays.
The best part of the Core were the class discussions. At the time I had strong political opinions. In our discussions of Aristotle’s views on government, I found that there were others who also had strong political opinions that were diametrically opposed to mine. In arguing, we found that we could both believe that we were right based on our core beliefs. I came to understand that the best outcome of real-life disagreements is to find practical solutions to problems, not to argue about theoretical differences. That is a lesson that everyone in the United States needs to understand now.
Since graduation, I have been gradually finishing the Core Curriculum. As an undergraduate I thought that The Iliad was about Achilles, who was a rampaging killing machine on the battlefield. I thought that the aim of the epic was to demonstrate how he achieved honor. Now I think that Homer wanted to contrast the difference between Achilles and Hector. Achilles kills Hector and desecrates his body to try to overcome his grief about the death of his friend (lover?) Patroclus. I no longer believe that there is an easy way to overcome grief. I have seen too much grief in my life. Homer sublimely describes the grief of Priam, Hector’s father, and Andromache, Hector’s wife. Of course, my understanding of The Iliad now depends on having had the time to finish reading it. But it also rests on having lived longer. I have experienced loss and I appreciate the importance of love.
And then there was the time that I saw the Parthenon ....
The Core has stayed with me.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
A cubicle in the stacks in Butler Library. It was quiet and there were no distractions. The Metropolitan Museum is not actually on campus, but it is a short bus ride away. I will nominate the Met as a favorite spot.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
Everything. I would want to delete all the stupid things that I did and then do everything else better. That, of course, is not true. Once I stopped working 60 hours a week (plus night and weekend calls), I have had the time to pursue other interests. For instance, for the last few years, I have been a senior auditor at Penn. I sit in classes with undergraduates. I do the readings, as much as I can, but I do not take exams or write papers. Would anyone of my fellow alumni want to take exams, be graded on writing essays and worry about their grade point average? Today’s undergraduates will have the pleasure of discovering who they are and what they want to be. We old fogeys did what we did. We can enjoy memories of our old traumas through the cloudy lens of bygone years, which softens the focus while enjoying our successes for which Columbia prepared us.