Saturday, July 11, 2009

Berkeley, Our Alma Mater, 1953–1962

Taken by P. J. at Library Annex or another of the granite buildings, c. 1955.

Now that I've abandoned the year-by-year approach, I can take note of the re-play of Robert McNamara's Booknotes interview with Brian Lamb, the one interviewer who (even more than Charlie Rose) lets persons say what they want to and get carried away, too. This afternoon, when I heard R. McN. speak of Berkeley when the cost per semester, including healthcare, was only $52, and I heard him talking about how the university had opened a whole world for him, and how great everything was, I could almost have wept. Even an art school (of which more on another occasion) is too small to open a world. Berkeley offered professors from all over the world, in almost every subject, professors too possessed of savoir faire to point out to anyone, let alone undergraduates, what all they had published and how famous, in some cases, they were. Most who had left Europe in the 1930s were still too young to think of retiring. Home-grown faculty (Berkeley did not as a rule "inbreed"; by home-grown I mean U. S. American) were just as cosmopolitan, in most cases. Especially for a young Californian, who had never traveled at all, not even to Los Angeles or to Lake Tahoe, think what it meant to be at home in a University with a student body almost as richly varied (consider: the G.I. Bill; the population of California itself, the students who had followed professors attracted to Berkeley from other institutions all over the nation; the foreign students, finally, only a few of whom lived in the International House). Most of all, consider a university in a lovely town, with San Francisco just across the Bay via the F Train, with a climate that required no winter clothes, a university where, by working half time, 20 hours or so per week, at minimum wage, you could work your way through the university and graduate with excellent degrees—without any debt. This last consideration had not mattered to another of my father's generation, Robert Oppenheimer, but it did matter to Robert McNamara, a little younger than my mother, and nothing much had changed by the early 1950s. Tuition for Californians and for graduate students was still free; what we paid was for the processing of our records and for Cowell Hospital, where both doctoring and medication was provided for all students. This included psychiatry, when necessary, and it included 'crabs powder', for example. They were careful about what they prescribed, but it all was included. Sprains and breaks were included. We used to say that if you were capable of the hike uphill to Cowell, you pretty surely were strong enough to recover (of course, someone would drive you up there if necessary), but I remember just using an Ace bandage and gingerly making my way uphill, about half a kilometer I guess, being careful not to make it worse, in order to have a foot XRay'd (no bones, in fact, had been broken when I tripped on a block of steel).
So let's begin at the beginning, since it is possible that registering at the university has changed with the advent of adequate IT. Because it began at Cowell Hospital. All of us had to go through the medical examination. Provided. Of course, lots of useful data on basic conditions were collected, but everything was done by competent people. Although California required being able to swim the length of a standard pool in order to graduate from high school, mine, OHS, was one of the city high schools that had no pool, so I never learned to swim. The university, of course, let you in anyhow and, to my great relief, did not require any further physical education. We did wear the regulation women's swimsuits, though, to go through the physical examination, one-piece cotton knit, dark green (as I recall), much laundered (after each use by everybody who used the pools), utterly unglamorous. It took all afternoon. Not only height, weight, hair color, whether hair grew on the middle joint of our fingers, posture, gait, lungs and heart, blood pressure, but hearing and eyesight and color-blindness. Basic small-muscle coordination, too (dexterity—and, yes, left and right handedness). I probably forgot something. Anyway, I passed all. If I came to Cowell as a student, it was all there. I only went to Cowell twice, in fact, in the course of earning three degrees.
Now, why didn't I go off to Harvard as Mr. McNamara did? Not that I wasn't advised to. Best not to have all three degrees from one far-western university, they said, even Berkeley, which had just been rated one of the four best in the country. I was scared. I saw in magazines and read in fiction how students dressed, in some cases were required to dress, and had to live on campus. How could I do that? In order to fit working and studying together I had to have a flexible schedule and be able to eat when I could and what I could (I was already good at being careful about nutrition); I couldn't abide by dormitory lock-out hours, for example. And I had to dress decently, in the minimal sense (clean and neat), though that meant that half my clothes were from bargain 'ends' of yardage and sewn by hand. That meant skirts from simple patterns and blouses, almost all white, to go with everything else. Suppose Harvard or Bryn Mawr gave me a scholarship: what would I do? Besides, I barely knew how to use knives and forks properly, while things like introducing and being introduced gave me nightmares. Working half time allowed me to pay my rent and buy my groceries and save a bit each week towards the next semester's fees. Having no 'credit', neither had I any debt, but even as my academic strengths grew, I was so far behind in social graces that, though very tactful assistance was provided, I thought that I'd never catch up. Luckily, some of my best and dearest mentors had worked their way through university in the 1930s. To them the likes of me did not seem like a welfare case (and I wasn't one; I'd moved away from home in 1952 and thenceforth supported myself), and they were wise and extra kind to me. To many of the ex-Europeans, I think, most Americans alike seemed simply American, and they behaved to us as if they enjoyed knowing us and inviting us to tea and talking about books and concerts that we'd never heard of but which they discussed with us just as if we were knowledgeable. There is no way that they ever could be thanked enough. The things they showed us, prints, statuettes, coins, paintings, furniture, photographs were a world indeed. Half of my education shows up on my academic transcripts, but the other half is from the kindly post-parenting of my parents' generation but coming from a variety of worlds that my parents never knew.
Like many others of my generation at Berkeley, born in the early 1930s, I never wanted to leave Berkeley (except to travel and then come home), but the alma mater did have thousands more coming along behind us, and whoever had to support herself or himself had to move away. Only those who remained ABD (all-but-dissertation...) remained and sought other employment. Eventually I moved to Oregon. Not bad, but not Berkeley.