Two weeks ago I saw Indignation, a movie based on a Philip Roth novel of the same name. Set in 1950’s Newark, New Jersey as well as a 1950’s version of a small-town Midwestern college campus, Indignation is the story of Marcus Messner, a Jewish college freshman who attends a small Ohio college where Jewish students are a very small minority. The movie, as well as the novel, provide an interesting reflection on college life in the past. Anyone who desires that college life return to a time when “America was great,” should see this movie.
Marcus seeks a college life experience far from home. He sees how his mother and father live and does not want that for himself. Nor does he want to go to war in Korea, as some of his friends do, with reluctance. But his choice of college turns out to be the wrong place at wrong time. Marcus has chosen a conservative college community where chapel is semi-mandatory, though Jewish students are “encouraged” to join the only Jewish fraternity on campus. However, this is not the college experience (circa 1951) that Marcus wants. He wants to study, work at his part-time job in the library and meet a girl if he can. Yet a judgmental college dean finds all of this to be “strange.”
The judgmental dean, played by Tracy Letts, is a tall, somewhat intimating man who has his own ideas about what a “college man” should be. In his major dialogue with Marcus, he “worries” about why his freshman scholar has requested a change in rooms–he moves out of a triple room where he lived with the only two Jewish students the Jewish fraternity would not pledge–refuses to join the Jewish fraternity and does not appear to be “having fun.” My mind flashed back to Animal House (circa 1960) when Dean Vernon Wormer put the Delta Tau Chi fraternity on “double secret probation” for having too much fun. While Indignation is a drama and Animal House is a comedy, the character of the judgmental dean is similar. In the college life of the past, the “all powerful” deans had the power, and support from trustees and the community, to impose their personal values on students who are at least a generation younger. I must also add that all of the students who attended the conservative college in Indignation, male and female, were White, as were all of the men and women who attended Faber College (‘Knowlege is Good’) in Animal House.
College life was not necessarily “better” in a past where colleges spent less on “creature comforts” for the their students while their administrators imposed their own values without considering those among different groups on campus. Men who attended college from the conclusion of World War II through the early 1970s could not afford to leave college. Those who got kicked out were sent to war. The judgmental dean had the authority to notify Selective Service of the dismissal. I doubt that many parents of today’s college-bound students would want to send their son or daughter to a college if they had heard that one person in power had that kind of power.
College life was far less democratic than it is on campuses today. In recent years college administrators have tried to accommodate unique interests, often taking criticism for providing counseling, housing and student services towards helping students of different ethnicities and sexual orientations as well as those who have previous military service. I’ve heard the arguments in support of these services and programs and those against. I keep going back to this: colleges are communities that have individuals who organize themselves into different groups for different reasons. Aside from a “bond” around a major event such as a sports rivalry, colleges are more successful when they try to accommodate and respect diversity, just as a responsible mayor of a city must do. I understand parents pay for that, so do the students. The same parents and students live in communities where they pay for services that other groups of citizens use–for instance a senior center or summer recreation programs for children–because that helps their community to be more welcoming.
It takes more attention and time, not to mention more money, to be a less judgmental college administrator. Today’s college students are better off for that.
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