EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The time I was in college combined with the place where I went to college made my college experience truly unique. The time was 1967-1971, a dramatic period in national history. The place was Barnard College, the all-female school affiliated with Columbia University in New York City. I was at the epicenter of a major student movement that swept the country and ultimately affected university structure as well as government policy.

If you Goggle “Columbia University Riots of 1968, 1970 and 1971”, you’ll find tons of material documenting the world-famous, world-changing events that I experienced first hand – sort of. I was away on the sidelines of this epic battle between the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the university administration.

I was a commuter student – I lived at home in New York City with my parents, a subway ride away, not in the dorms on campus. So the minute the SDS took over the Administration Building in April of 1968, I stopped going to the campus and stayed at home. I learned what was happening from the news and from my friends who lived on campus.

This protest had two major goals. One was to end the university’s academic support for the Vietnam War. The other was to stop the construction of a segregated gymnasium and swimming pool on university-owned property near the campus. As the protests continued, the protesters took over other buildings on campus and the Acting College Dean was taken hostage for twenty-four hours. The protest grew in numbers and intensity and attracted the attention and support of the national radical movement of the time, led by Tom Hayden, who was then married to Jane Fonda.

After a week of lead stories on every national newscast and in every newspaper, the police were called in to quash the protests once and for all. Which they did with a vengeance. I got a call from a friend saying that police on horseback were riding around campus clubbing students. They also used teargas and stormed the occupied buildings. 132 students, four faculty and twelve police were injured and 700 protesters were arrested after a day-long battle with the police. More protests occurred in May with more arrests and more students beaten.

I was incensed when I heard that the protesters had occupied a history professor’s office and burned years of his research in the days before we had computers and backups to everything. I was strongly against the Vietnam War but I hated the protestor’s methods and extreme ideology. I felt that the movement was intent on tearing down everything without any ideas for what to put in its place. And I’d seen the leader of the SDS, Mark Rudd, around campus and thought he was an arrogant asshole.

Mark Rudd on campus (far right)

My grandmother was a socialist who had fought against the Tzar in Russia in the early 1900s and she was mad at me for not joining the protesters on the barricades. She felt that if I didn’t try to change things for the better when I was young, when would I? I saw her point but didn’t feel that this was the right way to effect meaningful change or the right people to do it.

Police on campus

The protests of 1968 paralyzed the university and were considered the most powerful and effective student protests in American history to date. What was my personal takeaway from this iconic experience?

Classes were canceled for more than a week and final exams were also canceled. We got whatever grade we had earned up to that point in each class. So I didn’t have to take finals in my first year at college. I considered that a win!

A newly famous and influential SDS mounted strikes against the university again in 1970 and 1971 to protest the Vietnam War and the presence of ROTC and military recruiters on campus. I still objected to their radical rhetoric and violent tactics and took no part in their activities. However I did benefit, yet again, from another university-wide shut down around final exam time.

Another year without finals! I’m probably part of the only class in American College history that only had to take two sets of final exams out of four years in college. And, oh yes, had a front seat to history in the making.

REMEMBERING HIGH SCHOOL – Marilyn Armstrong

I had no choice about what high school I’d attend. In New York, unless you were going to one of the four or five special schools for performers (that’s where “Fame” came from, the New York School for Performing Arts) or the few for math and sciences and there were a couple of others, but I don’t remember them anymore, you went to your local high school.

In my case, Jamaica High School. Built to hold 1200 students, it housed nearly 3,000 when I was there. It’s closed now. I think they have turned it into some kind of museum.

Jamaica High School

It was five stories high with the choir loft at the top — five stories of stairs to climb and no elevators. I was in a cast my final (senior) year, so I had to be homeschooled for nine months. They sent an actual teacher to the house. I learned absolutely nothing at home but to be fair, there wasn’t much to learn that I didn’t already know, at least from a studies viewpoint. Most of the learning took place in earlier years. But homeschooling did let me meet some interesting and odd people.

Music was always with me. I was a serious piano student. It had nothing to do with high school since I studied privately. I was in the chorus, not the choir. I didn’t think my voice was good enough or strong enough for the choir. My alto voice was okay, but I would have had to study to make it better and stronger. I was so wrapped in piano, I didn’t have time.

That, and of course, writing.

I was always part of the “junior genius” crowd, but my grades didn’t reflect it. I coasted. I did well in things that I liked, not very well in others. I still won two national merit scholarship as well as the Westminster Scholarship (based exclusively on test results — NOT my grades).

They wouldn’t give me the money because my father earned too much. I never understood how they could do that. I thought I had earned it, but even after I got married, they STILL based it on my father’s (not my husband’s) income. Times have changed, but I was furious then and remarkably, I’m still annoyed.

High School, really

It didn’t make as much difference in 1963, though. Colleges were surprisingly inexpensive. Hofstra, where both Garry and I went, was for him just $17/credit and for me, just $42/credit. Now, it’s very expensive. Unimaginably expensive.

I wanted to study music. It wasn’t what I was best at. I was always a better writer, but I loved music. The piano also wasn’t the right instrument for me, but I didn’t know that until years later. I was tiny when I started studying and still tiny when I reached my “full” growth. The piano was big and my hands are little.

It never occurred to me until I was years into college that I could change instruments. By then, I was drifting back to what I was good at — writing. I never worked as a professional musician because I wasn’t good enough. I was good, but the difference between “good” and “good enough” in classical music is gigantic. Good gets you gigs at a piano bar. Good enough gets you concerts. Better than good enough and maybe — if you are lucky — the world is yours.

I didn’t want to teach piano and certainly didn’t want to play in local bars, but I thought maybe I’d write a great book. I sort of did, but I sort of didn’t. Define “great.”

They didn’t teach instruments in my high school. They didn’t even teach them in college. You still needed a private teacher and my teacher was miles away and I didn’t drive. I did what I could on my own, but I needed a teacher.

We didn’t have a senior prom in High School. It was canceled because no one signed up to go. Nor were there parties to celebrate unless they were small and private. The school was divided by race, class, where you lived, what your extracurricular activities were, and whether you were Jewish, well-to-do-white, poor white, Black, Hispanic or Something Else.

My grades weren’t great, but my IQ was ridiculously high. I’m still not sure what that means in terms of the life one lives. Most of the super smart people I knew, in the end, lived fairly normal lives. The people who made billions were not necessarily the ones with the highest IQs, either. They were the ones with the most determination and focus, something tests don’t measure.

Hofstra in 2014

Nonetheless, I won the two big merit scholarships. There was a ceremony in our auditorium where the Principal pointed out that MOST OF US deserved the award, with an evil eye sent to me and my best friend Heidi — another under-achieving winner.

I think the people who miss high school are people who had a special relationship with it or someone in it. For me, it was something I needed to survive until I got to college. I really enjoyed college, though. It wasn’t just studying. It was social and spiritual and the people I met there are still my friends today.

I admit I didn’t try terribly hard. Most things came to me easily. I had a great memory (unlike now). The hard work came after school. At work. When I had to learn Systems Analysis in two weeks. I needed to know them to do the work I did — so, I learned them. I thought my brain was going to explode.

Little Theater – WVHC 1963

Long after college days were done, one of my bosses was a Ph.D. in Higher Mathematics from M.I.T. I commented that I hadn’t really had to study in school. He laughed. He said that was the thing about M.I.T. Everyone there had been able to go through school without studying. At M.I.T., you studied or you dropped out. It turns out, there ARE schools where you really have to study. I suspect when you get into hard sciences and math, that was also a different story. History is a lot easier to remember than physics.

I was lucky insofar as not only did I grow up in an area full of every kind of person, but my mother urged me to get to know them. She wasn’t just a liberal in-name. She meant it. I don’t think she thought I’d marry someone of a different race, but doubt she’d be surprised.

She knew I dated men of various hues and aside from occasionally pointing out that babies from mixed marriages might have a hard time, she didn’t say anything else. It took me a long time to be comfortable as the only white person in a group of darker people — until I realized no one cared except me, after which it was much easier.

It’s funny looking back into the early sixties. All the things we were striving to do seem to be in the process of being undone. I’m not sure where we are going or with whom we are going. I’m hoping I live long enough to live the difference.

EDUCATION AND HOMEWORK – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Homework

This is a little rant about schools, educational funding, underpaid, exhausted teachers, outdated textbooks, and overpriced colleges lacking state and federal backing.

In the years since I graduated from college in 1967, I’ve been watching what was a mediocre school system get much worse. I see legally required fancy buildings which offer little real education. Each year, it gets worse. Do we care about education or is it just something we like to to talk about? Do we want our kids to be able to compete in the world?


I pretty much never did my homework. To be fair, back in those golden olden days, teachers didn’t check to see if you did it either. You might get tested on it at some point later in the term, but if the information was covered in class, I’d remember it. Back then, I had a great memory. I prided myself on not having to write down phone numbers. I could remember all of them.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Now, no matter how often I use a phone number, other than my own and my son’s, I have to look it up. I may not remember it long enough to not have to look it up a few times while trying to make the call. Time. It does its thing. I have maybe 15 seconds between getting information and it disappearing like the breeze in the trees.

I swear kids these days get homework intended to make up for not getting taught anything in school. Apparently, they are supposed to learn on their own what their teachers are too tired, bored, or incapable of teaching.

Leslie commented the other day that there are some great movies that could be used in the classroom. There are, absolutely. Inherit The Wind. On The Waterfront. The Lion In Winter. A wide variety of well-done historical documentaries and movies. But they aren’t used.

Harvard – Photo: B. Kraft

What they are getting is dry, dull textbooks, many of which were out of date when they were written fifty years ago. I never cracked a textbook. I just read on my own and I had a mother who loaded me down with books and a library that was a mere mile away. I remember toting home the maximum limit of books they’d let you borrow in a week. Ten books. They were heavy books, but I was young.

High School, really

For a country that supposedly values education, this country has a  strange way of showing it. Every year, when we begin to run out of budgeted money, states and the feds cut school budgets.

You can’t make a great country from a nation of ignoramuses. Yes, if your parents have the money, they might be able to send you to a superior school and if the child is smart enough, he or she might really benefit from a better education. But there are also a lot of private schools that are essentially “pay tuition for good grades.” Send your kids there. Pay the fabulous tuition and they’ll get grades which should get them into college.

Hofstra in 2014

Colleges have gotten smarter, though. They test incoming kids to make sure they can read and understand what they’ve read. They make sure they have basic maths skills. They check science education. This isn’t to make sure they are brilliant, but to make sure have a basic grasp of English. To see if they can understand the concepts of what they’ve read because — as an English professor I know has pointed out, many kids not only don’t read but can’t.

They don’t know grammar because it isn’t taught in public schools and hasn’t been since before I started school in 1951. They don’t know the parts of speech, have no concept of punctuation, and can’t do anything resembling research because when all of the preceding is true, how can you research anything? If you don’t understand what you’ve read, you can’t move forward.

Let me state for the record this is not the fault of the kids. It’s OUR fault for allowing education to become so bad in so many places and so expensive everywhere else. Only the brightest and most individually motivated youngsters manage to rise above the system.

I know not every child from every family is going to be a scholar, but shouldn’t every child have that opportunity? If they have the smarts and the interest, shouldn’t it be possible?

P.S. 35, Queens

Loading them up with eight hours of homework while loading them down with 50-pounds of boring, timeworn textbooks is a total educational cop-out. The schools I went to weren’t fabulous, but the teachers knew something. They encouraged us. If we showed promise, there was always a teacher who’d give us a nudge, suggest we try a little harder and get better.

These days? Working (briefly) as a substitute I was appalled at how listless and bored the students were. They were thrilled to have someone in the classroom that could talk to them about anything. I was told that usually, all they did was read the textbooks until the bell rang. I’d have collapsed from boredom.

We wonder why they spend so much time on the phone or iPad or computer? That’s how they learn. But what are they learning?

THIS IS NEWS? YOU SERIOUS? – Marilyn Armstrong

The latest hot scandal that rich people pay to get their kids into college is not news. It wasn’t news in 1963 when I started college. Literally, everyone knew that if you had the money to make a major donation (building new edifice on campus could get all your kids into school), you’d get your kid in, even if he or she was an illiterate moron.

Hofstra University Playhouse

This has probably been true as long as there have been colleges and universities that needed money, new dormitories, a law school extension, a new chemistry laboratory or gymnasium. If you can give them the money, they’d not only put your kid in school and make sure he or she graduated, they’d name the building after you and give you an honorary degree too.

So this whole big scandal is essentially taking a longstanding tradition and “making it news.”

It isn’t news. It isn’t newsworthy.

It has been going on for generations and as soon as this story gets old, it won’t be news and it will be “back to business.” Private universities — public ones too — urgently need funds. They never have enough from tuition and are always hitting up grads for money. I’ve been tempted to try to delete my name from the list of graduates of my school just to get them to stop asking for donations. It’s not that I have anything against Hofstra. More like I don’t have any money to give them.

Photo: B. Kraft

The fancier the school, the more they are searching for donations. Big donations. Universities would not survive without donations from wealthy graduates. Do I think it’s fair that the rich can buy their kids’ education? No, but “fair” is not what our world is. If this is the most unfair thing going down, I wouldn’t worry about it. There’s a lot worse stuff happening than this.

So this shocking news isn’t shocking and it isn’t news. I’m personally finding it extremely annoying. Some District Attorney decided he was going to make a story out of something everyone knew about.

Hofstra wasn’t as fancy when I attended.

Did the offspring of the wealthy seriously limit the number of intelligent kids getting into college?

Oh, come on.

The number of rich kids getting a free ride is very small compared to the number of kids getting a free ride by scholarship or for sports. That’s why schools are so eager to take in foreign students. Unlike American students, they actually pay full tuition. American kids get grants, scholarships, and as much assistance as they can generate.

Foreigners actually pay the whole fee.

IF YOU DON’T DO THE RESEARCH – Marilyn Armstrong

RDP Sunday – Mentor


I never think of myself as having had mentors. I suppose I thought they were supposed to announce themselves or wear an ID that said “Mentor” on it. They were the teachers that listened to me. Who really read the papers I wrote and didn’t give me an automatic “A” because I was good with words.

My favorite grade was an A+/D. It was a 40-page paper and I thought it read pretty well. So what kind of grade was that?

I went up to him after class and said “Huh?”

He said: “Great writing. Pity you didn’t do the research. Writing is a wonderful skill, but if you don’t do the research …”

If you don’t do the research — or ignore the results of the research — you become Fox News.

PRIVILEGE AND ALCOHOL ABUSE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Since Brett Kavanagh, the Supreme Court nominee, now Justice, has been in the news, so have discussions about excessive drinking among teenagers. Apparently, there are studies that show that rich, privileged teenagers are more likely to abuse alcohol. An article in the Washington Post on September 28, by Suniya S. Luthar, is subtitled “Affluence is a risk factor for dangerous behavior.”

Brett Kavanagh

Psychological research seems to support the premise that excessive drinking is more common with affluent teens, like Brett Kavanagh, who went to an élite boarding school in the 1980’s. In fact, students in high-achieving, élite schools are at higher risk for drug abuse, anxiety, and depression as well as casual sexual activity.

Substance abuse in high school is not an isolated phenomenon. It is linked to serious drug and alcohol abuse in later life. This is clearly not only a teenage problem.

The studies show that the key risk factor for these wealthy kids is not money. It’s the extreme pressure they feel to succeed, to be the best and to live up to very high standards of accomplishment. This extreme pressure to excel produces high levels of stress and anxiety.

Another factor in this toxic situation is the attitude of the parents. The parents seem to be more lenient when it comes to transgressions by their kids vis-à-vis drugs and alcohol. They are willing to pay for high-priced lawyers to get their kids out of any legal trouble. However, these same parents would come down hard on their kids if they indulged in behavior such as truancy, academic slacking or inappropriate social behavior to adults.

The article warns that “When adults are sanguine about drunkenness and associated reprehensible behaviors among kids, there are potentially serious consequences for … an entire generation of young people as they form their own values about what is decent, what is excusable and what will simply not be tolerated despite the power and prestige of their parents.”

I don’t believe that all of this is inevitable. But I am biased. I grew up affluent in New York City and went to a high achievement oriented high school in the 1960’s. My school was not residential so we had a different culture and social matrix than a residential boarding school. Dorm life can be a strong influence on kids. I succumbed to the academic pressure and suffered from both anxiety and depression. But neither I, nor anyone else in my class of 120, drank heavily or regularly. (Drugs were not yet readily available so they were not an issue.)

Unreal dormitory life

My school was 95% Jewish, and at the time, the stereotype of Jews not drinking much was basically true. My parents never drank. Not even wine at dinner. They only served alcohol at dinner parties. So my experience may have been atypical. The fact remains that teenagers under pressure don’t inevitably turn to alcohol or drugs.

I have a friend whose son now goes to a prestigious, rigorously academic, coed, residential prep school in Connecticut. There is plenty of tolerance and support for homosexuality, gender fluidity, and gender switching. But not for blackout drinking or drug abuse.

The students (at least in my friend’s experience) are serious students into healthy living. His friends are multi-ethnic and multi-cultural and racial and there are many kids from underprivileged backgrounds. This melting pot may explain the straight, clean lifestyles.

It’s not all rich, white males, like at Brett Kavanaugh’s single-sex school. The peer pressure there to drink excessively and misbehave may have partially been a cultural phenomenon.

We need to get parents to be vigilant about their privileged children’s drinking and drug habits in high school. If we can’t reach the kids directly, maybe we can reach the parents who tolerate and finance their children’s excesses.