My hero, Deresiewicz, returns: What is college (and an education) for?

I hope I’m not interrupting our train of thought here. (As you can imagine, I certainly do still want to know What You Want!) But, just for a brief moment, this essay takes us back to conversations you and I had a couple of years ago, when you were starting college — some of which I revisited a bit in my first post to you here.

You’re pretty tied in to the meme of the day, so maybe you’ve already seen this. But if you haven’t, you need to. It’s my hero, William Deresiewicz, on what you or anyone else might be getting an education for.

You know, Deresiewicz… that guy who wrote that great book on what Jane Austen taught him about life? (Which I’m surprised to see he creatively packaged in bite-size form for your friends at the Huffington Post…)

I’ve been encouraging you to read his stuff for a long time. Like this and this.

Oh, and in the interests of fairness, here’s a snippy dissenting view (that IMHO says more about its author than about Deresiewicz, but your mileage may vary…)






The question you requested (and, of course, some more reflections you didn’t request)

Asking questions can be harder than answering them!

Since you asked me for a question, I’ve been struggling to come up with one that’ll require hard reflection but you can still answer before our vacation <grin>.

But, one question keeps coming back to me, as unformed and problematic as it is. So here goes:

What do you want?

Feel free to take that wherever you like. Go big or small, short-term or long, however the spirit moves you. World peace? Decent Italian food in Williamsburg, VA? A clear direction in life? Mets in the World Series? Something doable?

Oh, and feel free to be completely provisional. Your answer will not be carved in granite.


Meanwhile, your previous post made me reflect a little more deeply on what I already told you (which means you’re doing your job)!

First of all, as for no longer being self-centered, I’m better — but I’m parsecs* away from perfect. If you doubt that, ask your mom <grin>.

As for what you said about “That was not the same Bill Camarda who takes several online college courses and until his dad’s death, called him almost every day for years”…

Number one, I can’t take all the credit for all those phone calls. I’d be lying if I let that stood. There were a lot of days when Mom picked up the phone and made that call.

Mom and Grandpa Sam had a special and wonderful relationship. But still — why Mom, why not me? Because the introvert in me wasn’t always up to the task of talking to another human — even my own Dad.

I’m still working on that, but you can bet there are some conversations I never had with my parents that I wish I’d had now. This appears to be one of the life lessons you’ve figured out decades before I did. You’re sure as heck working on it sooner than I did…

And am I the same Bill Camarda anyhow? Is anyone the same person they were 40 years ago? Doesn’t one want to be partly the same and partly different? To grow from a certain foundation that doesn’t change? You wake up in the morning and there ought to be some continuity with the person who went to sleep the night before, and the night before that. On the other hand, I know some people that don’t seem to have grown a bit in 40 years, and God are they ever boring.

In some ways I’m very different, in other ways I can see a vivid bright-colored thread linking “that” Bill to “this” one. Using your example, while I skipped practically a whole year of classes, even that year I was perpetually ravenous to learn new stuff. It just happened to be about the management of college food services and restaurants. (I’ll never forget reading an ad for a long cylindrical simulated hard-boiled egg product — and then seeing it the following week in Friendly’s. But again I digress.)

Lots of my quirks are still there. Though I’ve definitely sanded down many of the socially rough edges. I could have easily been one of the more off-the-beaten-track folks you see at Connecticon. Every weekend, I could easily be playing in Scrabble tournaments or dressing up in medieval costume. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those! In fact, sometimes I’m tempted! I just mean, I could be way more eccentric than I already am <grin>.

As for my imperfections, one thing that’s been nice about getting older is they don’t bother me as much. I’m still trying really hard to improve (that’s one thing I really like about myself). But I’ve become more forgiving when I (often) don’t completely succeed.

All of which takes me to that guilt thing. You made me think more about that, too. I stand by what I (and the scriptwriter from Wall Street) said. But when I think harder about it, what made me straighten up and fly right vis-a-vis my parents wasn’t the sudden discovery of guilt. Things started to get better when I started to feel better about myself as a person. As soon as that started to happen, it dawned on me what a jerk I’d been to them, and I was able to start doing something about it.

So the guilt was useful. But I would have probably kept ignoring it if I hadn’t first developed some authentically good feelings that gave the strength to face it.

As an aside, one thing I learned from my own personal growth process — and I’m talking about through my 20s and 30s — no matter how bad things get, they really can improve. People can work on the stuff that’s most dysfunctional about themselves — the stuff where they really get in their own way, and prevent themselves from finding happiness. And they can get to like themselves for who they are. I know that sounds like a total cliche, but like most cliches it’s based on something true and important.

First time I heard about that “It Gets Better” campaign, I thought: this is spot on, not just for gay kids, or even for every struggling young person, but for a lot of “no-longer-kids,” too.

Does any of that make any sense?


*I am again gently encouraging you to listen to those astronomy videos.



Thanks for sharing! Now ask me something!


When I asked you that that question, I didn’t quite realize the well of experiences I tapped into, as well as your desire to tell them. Many of these stories you hadn’t told me, like your (almost definitely illegal) Stony Brook Monopoly business and you flunking most of your junior year. Even the ones I knew about, like the occupation of the Administration building, you provided richer detail. (I couldn’t contain myself when I saw “State of New York vs. William Camarda.) Thank you for your honesty.

One thing that struck me was how different you were in college from who you are now. That was not the same Bill Camarda who takes several online college courses and until his dad’s death, called him almost every day for years. You talked about being self-centered, but having watched you as a husband and father, this amazes me. I suspect that, given the chance, you would knock some sense into your past self.

One passage in particular aroused my suspicion:

“Back then it was trendy to talk about how people needed to let go of all the guilt they’d been taught growing up. Bull. Guilt, for lack of a better word, is good. Guilt is right. Guilt works. Guilt clarifies, cuts through, and captures… when you ought to be behaving better than you are. I needed more of it, not less. I gradually got a clue, but it took way too long, and I needed to do a lot of growing up.”

I’m guessing that learning this was central to how you became the person you are. I’ve often wondered what the appropriate balance was. Clearly, we can’t walk around constantly feeling guilty about everything. But at it’s best, guilt guides and clarifies. It’s an immediate reminder of the commitments we’ve made to others, especially our loved ones.

Okay Dad, I asked you a really big question and you answered it. Now, I want you to ask me something. I’m eager to see what you come up with.

Denouement: Thoughts on telling one’s own story

5,000 words later. That was a fascinating experience for me: shaping four of the most intense years of my life into something like a coherent narrative.

That really is the story I tell myself about those years. It’s fascinating to see it written down, see what I choose to include and omit. I wonder what my friends would say. That might scare me as much as having you read it.

It’s a different kind of editing. And in this sense, probably we’re all editors.

I’ve heard novelists and psychologists and sociologists talk about how we all have narratives we tell ourselves.

Stories about where we came from. About those moments when we followed a path someone else might not have. Made a decision that shaped us, or seemed to say something important about who we are.

When I started to lose weight, I had a story I told myself: My mother had always said that my father had been overweight… but Dad decided to lose the weight, and so he did.

Most people can’t lose weight and keep it off. But that story put the wind at my back. It really helped.

I don’t know why. Maybe I thought I was genetically predisposed to succeed. Maybe I thought I’d absorbed something from him about how to do it. Maybe I just wanted to live up to his accomplishment. But I know for sure it mattered.

I still don’t know how much weight he lost. If I’d found out it was only 10 or 20 pounds, I doubt if I could’ve ever lost 70.

I wonder what your personal narrative is about yourself. No, that’s not a question for you to answer here! At least not yet, I wouldn’t think. That’s a question to ask over a lifetime.

I wonder if it’s good or bad to surface one’s own narrative — one’s own personal myth, so to speak. Does it do the same job if you’re paying attention to it? Or does it seem more self-consciously selective and partial?

My first reaction reading my own tale is that I’ve made it even more powerful in my own life. That’s my “official story” now. It’s not just fluid memories anymore, it’s written down.

At some point, the Iliad transitioned from a story recited by bards at campfires, to a book with a “correct” canonical text. I don’t have a personal Iliad, I wasn’t in a war. But that was the time in my life when I came closest to having a band of brothers sharing a common cause.

If I’m tempted to change my story later (say if I ever have grandkids) I’ll have to ask myself why. I don’t think I’ll give myself the luxury that partisan political commentators take — of completely ignoring what they said last year, as if nobody remembers.

Of course there’s also the question: can we even surface our personal narratives? Or is there a deeper one underneath that I’m still not aware of?

Happy July 4th, Matt! (Countries have narratives too, heaven knows.)

Write back (on any subject of your choice! Do not feel obliged to take on my massive explosion of verbiage. <grin>)



Update: OK, it bothered me that I said “I wonder what your personal narrative is about yourself. No, that’s not a question for you to answer here! At least not yet, I wouldn’t think. That’s a question to ask over a lifetime.”

What I meant to say was: you don’t have to have one, and if you do, I don’t expect you to cough it up right here and now.

I realize I already had one when I was 16. Only problem, it wasn’t mine. It was his:

Curt Lockers




Part IV: He finally graduates (but nothing is ever simple)

When we last saw our protagonist**, he had managed to fail out of college and then beg his way back in by promising to immediately get his academic act in order.

Before proceeding one bit further, I need to talk about my long-suffering parents. Remember, I wasn’t just their only child, I was first-in-the-family to go to college (with parents who probably would’ve loved to have had the same chance they gave me).

Plus I was allegedly supposed to be pretty smart, too. I sure wasn’t showing it.

It wasn’t just the failing out. I was just damn difficult. We fought, a lot. It took a long time for it to get through my thick skull just how much I put them through in those days. Any way you look at it, they were both saints, and it horrifies me to recall just how self-centered I was.

Back then it was trendy to talk about how people needed to let go of all the guilt they’d been taught growing up. Bull. Guilt, for lack of a better word, is good. Guilt is right. Guilt works. Guilt clarifies, cuts through, and captures… when you ought to be behaving better than you are. I needed more of it, not less. I gradually got a clue, but it took way too long, and I needed to do a lot of growing up.

As a college senior, I did indeed buckle down, get to work, and get pretty good grades. Of course, I was now 15 credits behind. I handled this by taking 7 credits at Stony Brook the following summer session, and hitchhiking to Suffolk Community College at the same time to take another eight. I remember that daily hitchhike vividly — and acing a 4-credit course there in Accounting and another in Geology. So I graduated in August instead of May.

I still occasionally have nightmares that somehow those eight credits didn’t count or weren’t enough, and they’ll take my degree away from me. But, no, I really do have a Stony Brook diploma. Honest. I can show it to you.

There was, however, one little bump in the road that year…

calendar demo 1977

Well, OK, sure, I was there… but I only had a tiny little bit to do with organizing this. Sadly, when David covered this story for the student newspaper, I was the one he knew… so I was the one he quoted… so when the university got its court order demanding that we immediately leave the building or be held in contempt… well, it looked like this:

calendar court order 4

…and when the “Stony Brook 25” needed fundraising support for their defense in court, we looked like this:


Smiles aside, nobody can be untroubled by a court order with the State on the top and one’s own name on the bottom <grin>.

…Let’s just say that only one of us ultimately went to jail, and it wasn’t me. And he only wound up going for a few hours: pretty much just long enough for them to give him a haircut.

My senior year at Stony Brook did not end quite the way you might expect.

In August, as I was finally graduating, a job opening appeared: Executive Director of the self-same student government I’ve been telling you about. This individual reported to both the students and the administration, managed the office, and authorized checks for about $600,000 a year in student activities.

The students decided to hire me. The administration had to approve me. They did. I guess I must’ve earned some respect along the way.

I spent a very eventful 18 months in that job. But we can hold most of that for later. Enough already!

I do want to share just one lesson I learned walking into the exact same student government office where I’d practically lived, but suddenly carrying “official authority.”

It is possible to be in a superior position only because you are slightly older than the people around you — and you well know the only way you’re “better” than them is that by sheer chance you have a bit more experience. I “supervised” people I knew would become lawyers and doctors and leaders, and were quite probably both smarter and more competent than I was. That’s stuck with me whenever I’ve been tempted to pull rank on people younger than me.

Not that I’d ever do such a thing, of course! <grin>

Your turn, finally, Matt! Feel free to react, or change the subject, or ask for a question, or do whatever you’d like…


**I mean me, of course. But I’m still embarrassed to use the first person as I tell you about this.



Part III: More college stories (triumphs and disasters)

So, it’s November 1974, I’m a sophomore, the elections are over. My guy Ramsey Clark has lost. But it was close, and hey, he lost to an actual proud and self-described liberal Republican, Jacob K. Javits. You cannot even find such people in endangered species parks anymore, but I tell you, Matt, they existed. And while Javits held on, we’d just elected a big Democratic “Watergate-Baby” majority in Congress. Including (right nearby on Long Island), Tom Downey — still the only 25-year-old to sit in the House of Representatives in nearly the last 50 years. Youth!**

By early December, things were not going swimmingly on campus, however.

Living conditions were increasingly rotten, or so we thought. And, with the recession rolling in, the university was making major cuts to its residence life programs. The dorms at Stony Brook had been named “residential colleges” because they were actually intended to be individual learning communities. By ’74 that idea was already pretty much gone, but the last vestiges were about to be wiped out. Even for those who couldn’t care less about abstract “learning communities,” it looked like student life was about to get even worse.

Plus, at this late date in the semester, freshmen were still being tripled. Three in a room! We considered this an absolute outrage. I was surprised to discover when we toured all those campuses a few years ago that students now take it in stride. (Funny thing: everyone in America seems to have their outrage meters set to maximum sensitivity nowadays, except for students. Are you guys more passive than the rest of us, or just more sensible?)

So… I went to this event:

demo 12-74

When it was over the next morning, I went to volunteer over at the student government that organized it. There was an energy in the air that I’d pretty much never seen before, except maybe once or twice in political campaigns. People were rushing around, doing stuff that looked hugely urgent and important. There were charismatic leaders.

In other words, it didn’t feel at all like “student government.”

These people actually wanted to make stuff happen for the people they represented. And they seemed remarkably driven and creative about it.

For example, some of them had run a successful proxy war to take over the campus corporation responsible for contracting out food service, the bookstore, laundry, and so forth.

That kind of thing NEVER happened. Those “auxiliary service corporations” existed all over the country simply to limit university liability. But as a practical matter, the administrators always called the shots… until these snot-nosed kids at Stony Brook pulled out the not-for-profit corporate law books, secretly met with the faculty who had key votes on selecting board members, and ran their coup d’état.

This was hot stuff.

I was there pretty much nonstop afterwards. Within maybe two weeks, I met  nearly all of my best, oldest friends — Al, Joel, Barry, David, Gerry, Mark, Stanley, names you know, and a few you don’t know yet. (Practically everyone but Saul.)

I did a lot of stuff — but mostly I wrote. Fliers, op-eds, research papers, you name it. Whatever was needed. Whatever I thought would help.

I learned a lot about research — and I learned in my bones that knowledge really was power. Even if you were 18 or 19 or 20, you could get to know your subject so well that you could beat the authorities.

You could research all their arguments, and come up with better counterarguments.

When they told there was only one way to do something — theirs — you could call up ten other universities and find someone with a better way.

You could build coalitions and find allies, on and off campus.

You could change the battlefield.

I also learned that if you were going to be involved in something, you ought to demand and earn a full role. If you were going to be a Democrat, be a Democrat, not a friggin’ “Young Democrat.” There was no reason on earth you couldn’t be, if you did the work.

I gradually found myself a specialized area of expertise: food service. In nine years, Stony Brook had had eight different food service vendors. The food was awful. Worse, people had to eat it.

Actually, only freshmen. There were electric stoves at the end of every hall, and once you became a sophomore, you were allowed off the meal plan. The authorities figured you were now “mature” enough not to burn down the dorm, or starve yourself. But those poor freshmen had to eat whatever swill they were handed.

We, again, in the great American revolutionary tradition, considered this oppression absolutely intolerable. We made what one would probably now call a libertarian argument. “People shouldn’t be forced to eat crap. And if the food service company had to compete for all its business instead of being handed 2,000 captive customers, the food would have to get better.” (As you and I have discussed, I’m amazed at how much of the argumentation seen as “left-wing” in that era now smells disconcertingly libertarian. But I digress…)

The university told us no food service company would ever come to campus without being guaranteed all those customers. So we found one that would.

I chaired the University Food Service Committee. We put in literally hundreds of hours. I mean, I was reading food service trade magazines the way other people read porn. Volume Feeding International. Pizza Today.

This is where I learned that obscure industries which nobody ever thinks about can be absolutely FASCINATING. They all have their own jargon, their own culture, their own business models, their own rock stars. I still love industry trade magazines and read them whenever I get the chance. And I think it’s helped me a lot in my work, which often involves doing business case studies.

And we finally won. In Spring of 1977, the meal plan would become voluntary for everyone.

You might be wondering at this point about my coursework. So were my professors.

I pretty much stopped going to class. And the longer I stopped, the harder it was to go back. Matt, my junior year, I earned — and I do mean earnedseven Fs.

And the inevitable happened: I was academically suspended. I mean, I was out.

There was an appeal process. I got down on my hands and knees. I mean, I groveled.

And I waited.

Every Friday morning, appeals like mine were decided. I knew pretty much the very moment my future was being voted on by five strangers.

It was not a pleasant feeling.

They voted 3-2 to let me back in. On probation.

Things were going to have to change. Were they ever.



**That would be the same Tom Downey who, after losing reelection, co-founded Downey McGrath, which now proudly lobbies on behalf of organizations such as Herbalife, Time Warner Cable, and Phibro Animal Health, a leading provider of antibiotics for chickens, pigs, and turkeys. (And, of course, “Taxpayers for Common Sense” — ably represented, presumably, in its epic battle to defeat “Taxpayers Against Common Sense” <grin>.) Mr. Downey is perhaps not quite so young anymore! But he helped teach me that it is easier to be pure before one is given the means and opportunity to be impure.



Part II: Dad starts telling his college story. (Since you asked…)

how did your college experience – your classes, your roommates, your friends, your relationships, your jobs, your surroundings, and your causes – help shape you?

Now I know how you feel — wrestling with a very big question that’s easy to ask and not so easy to answer!

I don’t know how to do this without a whole bunch of autobiography. Writing this has brought back a lot of memories. It’s going to take several posts to do it. (And, as Blaise Pascal first said, and many others memorably followed, If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter.)

You’ve also reminded me that I was actually asked in 2007 to look back at Stony Brook for the newspaper where I used to work. Even though that piece was commissioned to be about the campus, it’s really about me, too. If you’re interested, you might like it. I said a few things there that I’ll probably eventually talk about here.

Anyhow, here goes.

I went off to Stony Brook at age 17½. It was Fall, 1973. Why Stony Brook? I’d been all ready to go to the local commuter school, Queens College, and just live at home. I’d even visited the campus, poked around the student union, stopped in at the college newspaper and introduced myself.

That was the plan. It was MY plan. I was just fine with it. But my high school flame, so to speak, broke up with me. Suddenly, it seemed like a GREAT idea to get out of town and start fresh.

(Lest you somehow imagine that girlfriends were something that came natural or easy to me…. No.)

Anyhow, my Mom had suggested earlier that I also apply to Stony Brook, which was still practically new, but had quickly developed a very strong academic reputation. (It was nicknamed the “Berkeley of the East” both for its high academic aspirations and probably more so for all the hippies and radicals who’d shown up there in the late ’60s/early ’70s. Oh, and for its really great rock concerts — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Doors, etc. The place was a legend in the Northeast.)

By Fall 1973, however, the sixties were emphatically over (though some of us did not want to admit it). We were in the middle of Watergate, with Nixon and Vietnam soon to fall. And Stony Brook’s academic standards were slipping a bit, too — hence my admission with a not-quite-stellar high school transcript.

So there I was. Shy as hell. Terrified to death of rejection. Never lived on my own before, ridiculously young and inexperienced, looking desperately for a place to make my own. And suddenly I’m on this huge, out-of-control campus full of out-of-control people. (A perfect moment to grow a beard <grin>.)

In just a decade, Stony Brook had metastasized from a small teachers’ college to a gigantic university center, much to the horror of the genteel Mayflower descendants in the surrounding community. There was mud and construction and chaos everywhere. A few months before I arrived, a freshman had fallen into an open steam vent and been scalded to a horrifying death.

When I close my eyes and think back now, what I remember is warm, sunny days, wide open dorm windows, huge speakers turned outward to blast rock music onto the quads. Sometimes you’d walk across campus and one deafening set of speakers would fade out, another fade in.

I think those folks figured they were doing a public service. They could be pretty sure most people would groove on what they were playing. It wasn’t like now: everyone with their own private tastes and headphones.

The place was nothing if not free. And while I was way too shy and fearful to abuse all the freedom that had just been handed to me, it was still a pretty heady experience. Remember that only a decade before, most universities viewed themselves as acting “in loco parentis” (in the place of parents), and enforced “parietal” dorm rules (I share the definition since that is a word your generation may not have come across <grin>.

Undergraduate student life was not exactly a priority of Stony Brook’s administration, which was utterly focused on getting its new buildings built, hiring elite research professors, developing great graduate programs in what is nowadays called “STEM.” Whether the heat worked in the dorms in February? Not so much. But (if you didn’t freeze) you could do whatever you f*ing wanted.

Anyhow, I was a pretty good student my freshman year as I navigated my way around the bodies and steam vents and assorted wreckage. This would be me (if you can locate me against the background of my artfully decorated half of my freshman dorm room.)

bill freshman in dorm

I actually ran tours for parents and families a few weeks after I arrived. (Yes, I walked backwards, but we didn’t have North Face jackets then. I do still have the hat they gave me, though:)

1973 freshman tour hat

I even ran a little business. I sold Stony Brook monopoly games I’d created (back before such things were officially licensed). My games actually got really popular, to the point that I couldn’t even meet demand (since they had to be manually assembled and required dice that — believe it or not — could then only be bought from a licensed dealer of gambling supplies. (It really is remarkable how much changes in 40 years — big things and little things you never think about. When it came to gambling, the laws were still more “Guys & Dolls” than “Caesar’s Atlantic City.”)

And building on the politics I’d done in high school, I arranged to be the on-campus coordinator for the Ramsey Clark for U.S. Senate campaign, on the left edge of the Democratic Party — which in 1974 was pretty far left.

This is not to say I was a particularly effective organizer. (Even though I had been elected to the Queens County Democratic Committee back home in ’74, the lowest publicly elected office in existence. Yup, in my first year eligible to vote, I got to vote for myself.)

People who knew me will recall my Ramsey Clark T-shirts, since the campaign provided me way more than I could sell for fundraising or give away. And I did start meeting people who would play big roles in my life in the ensuing years.

For example, the history professor who noticed me out of work and hungry a few years later. He suggested that I take my typing skills over to the local newspaper — where I got a job as a typesetter, became a reporter and editor, learned about computers, and eventually started writing about technology. (Which led me to get a job in the city and meet a writer who would eventually hire me for a job in New Jersey so I moved here and met Mom…)

There’s one very practical way my experience at Stony Brook shaped me! And it leads to a whole other set of reflections on serendipity, being open to where new people and opportunities take you, being open to learning about stuff you never imagined you’d care about…

Of course, it also leads to a few thoughts about trying to steer your own ship a bit, instead of just drifting where those random breezes and waves take you. The breezes and waves that carried me towards writing about computers also carried me away from some of the other things I probably ought to have been writing about. (As you get older, it becomes more obvious that the choices of what you DO also become choices about what you DON’T do.)

But! Look at all the wonderful stuff that happened to me because I was trying unsuccessfully to politically-organize my way out of a paper bag, and in so doing, I met that history professor in 1974.

I didn’t know it in November 1974, but a lot of things in my life at Stony Brook were about to change…