There are stronger schools than UCLA. They’re not nearly as prestigious, certainly, but they’re much more interesting, as the whole school aims at cultivating a person, rather than processing a product. The UC system has few differences now than in the days of Mario Savio:
“… then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees! And we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”
This isn’t to say that nothing’s changed. The game is different, certainly. There are more people from poor backgrounds, ethnic, religious, or sexual minority backgrounds in college. And colleges cater to these folks more. Case in point: Samahang Pilipino and its attendant projects and UCLA’s overlapping network of P-orgs, sororities, fraternities, etc. is enormous and enormously popular. Everybody knows someone in SPACE, SPEAR, Samahang Modern.
But really, what’s the difference between 1968 and 2009? Savio’s complaint is still the same. Students are walking out of high school and into college and being built into workers in the metaphorical American vineyard – political consultants, lawyers, health professionals,academics, journalists (I cringe in self-recognition) and community organizers.
Don’t be fooled. “Community organizer” is a professional title. Activism is an industry, not always tied to the neighborhood work of a PTA or a Little League. One can make a living as an agent of social change, which sounds strange. I’m not accusing anyone, left or right, of selling out. I’m just saying that education’s main purpose – to build quiescent professionals – continues unabated, accusations of liberal or conservative brainwashing aside. Most everyone wants a decent job, two and a half kids, two cars in the garage, and a mortgage.
And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Making money is nice. Doing satisfying work for money is even nicer. College is a good place to figure out what kind of work satisfies you and upping your marketability before being sent out into the vineyard and winepress that is America.
But in regards to education, UCLA gives me headaches sometimes. I catch whiffs of careerism when I amble up Bruin Walk. I taste the dry and dusty aroma of those folks who’re here to educate themselves in the traditional college sense, to develop a way of life and thought in the time they’re here. I identify with both, but with the scholars more.
And, of course, I run into people that are wasting time and money because they don’t know or care what they’re doing with their lives. But that’s always going to happen.
But back to my first point – there are schools out there that don’t have this kind of institutional schizophrenia. They cater directly to would-be professionals, or to those who want to kill four or five years toying with ideas, or those who want to spend the first four years of their adult lives in some sort of stupor.
Take, for example, the small liberal arts college, with reputation but little name recognition among the people. My neighbors know UCLA well. They probably wouldn’t recognize Reed, Sarah Lawrence, or Bard. My dad recommended I look into those. In retrospect, I probably should have.
A colleague (who will remain nameless out of respect for his privacy) of mine mentioned that his brother went to Sarah Lawrence, and it wasn’t a good experience – it messed him up morally, is what I think my colleague said. Forgive me for what might sound like irrepressible hubris, but I’d be down for a challenge like that – having to rearrange my intellectual furniture in such a way as to take in what’s going on.
That said, I’m kind of glad I’m here. Sarah Lawrence or Reed might have given me a sharper mind, perhaps. But UCLA’s already given me sharper elbows. The places is cold, unfriendly, as a friend has been bemoaning. It’s hard to build friendships without being assertive, pushy – and too much pushy is always a turnoff. My roommate and I talk about this every now and again – what would it have been like at William and Mary, or Reed, or one of the Seven Sisters? My dad ribs me about not going to UCSC every time I go home. And, halfway through college, on a Sunday night working on a history paper, I have to drift off and ask myself – “what if I had gone to a smaller school, a more wonky school?”
But that’s a door I’ve closed, personally – I’m not transferring. While I don’t know if I’m cut out for the pace of LA life, I’m steeping myself in some interesting things already – local history alongside academic, boiling ideas down from books to papers to a 700-word column. UCLA’s not nearly big enough to satisfy every possible collegian’s taste, it works hard enough for mine, most of the time. Just as LA is a lot more than Hollywood, UCLA offers more for the person who’s willing to put aside the 103 NCAA titles, the wild tailgates and crazy Gayley nights (temporarily – I love me my Bruins) and spend a while in some quiet places. The books are there, the professors have their office hours, and I’m pushy enough to set and get my own agenda.
While I’m surrounded by people who’re engrossed, either with apprehension or enthusiasm, with making a living, there’s more than enough space to learn to live a life.
These next two years are going to be interesting.