A Good School
Some things about a college may be quantifiable but a good education is not necessarily
When my car's battery died one afternoon last summer, a middle-aged couple noted my distress and offered me a ride. As they drove me home, they learned that I taught at the local college, Salem State.
"Our niece goes there," the man said. "She loves it." I wasn't surprised. Most people I meet appreciate the college. This couple's niece had initially attended some well-known school and disliked it. At Salem State, she had small classes taught primarily by professors, not graduate students or part-timers. Her professors knew her name. "It's a good school," the woman said.
"A good school." It's a phrase in the air this week as college applications come due. I first heard it in high school, when I was deciding where to apply to college. Thanks to good SAT scores, I received letters from many schools, most of which I had never heard of: Haverford, Bates, DePauw. These, I was told -- by my mother, by savvy classmates -- were "good schools."
If I wondered how someone who had never visited these schools could declare them "good," my doubts were erased by examining a guide to colleges, which labeled these schools "highly" or "extremely" competitive.
But what was a "good school"? I'm not sure it was clear to me or to the people writing the guides. Only one impression was definite: A good school was someplace where many people wanted to go and not so many were accepted. To get accepted meant that you were among the chosen. The Ivies seemed the most prestigious, and so I went to Columbia.
At Columbia, as at these other good schools, it was presumed one would get a "good education," another mushy phrase. According to the college guidebooks, a good education could be quantified: number of publications by faculty, number of books in the library. Just a smidgen of thought reveals how superficial and insignificant these numbers are.
In my undergraduate education, only a handful of professors inspired me. The most influential one replaced a more famous professor mid-semester. Did I count any of my professors' publications? Did those publications make a whit of difference to my classroom experience? As an English major, I was in classes with 50 to 100 students. No one knew whether I showed up.
At some schools, one rarely takes classes with the prestigious faculty anyway, but with graduate students or adjuncts, part-timers who often shuttle among three or more campuses. Last year I met a waitress at a local diner who was considering Salem State. She was in her mid-20s, had gone to Boston University, and had hated it. After traveling and working in South America, she returned and enrolled in a community college. "And you know what? I took two classes with the same teachers I had at BU," she said. "And I was paying how much at BU?"
What's the difference between Salem State and Columbia? At Salem State, accessible professors teach most of your courses, your classes are smaller, and you aren't conferred a sense of entitlement upon graduation. Of course, there are also the students. No doubt at a school like Columbia, devoted to accepting high achievers, one's classmates can be inspiring.
It's not so easy to develop lifelong bonds at Salem State, when students rush to their cars after class to get to work or pick up their kids. I wish I could grant them the leisure to live the contemplative life that Columbia offers. Yet being among Salem State students is illuminating, too.
I met Tony, a maintenance worker in his mid-30s, on the back elevator in the library. We exchanged "Hi's."
"You teach here, right?" he asked.
"I took all my English classes," he said. "I'm a history major. I want to teach high school, go back and work with all those teachers I gave a hard time." He smiled.
"Good luck," I said.
When I got off the elevator, I kept thinking about Tony. It wasn't that he was so unusual -- a maintenance worker who was also a student; it was that he was so typical. The same person who is keeping the buildings up is taking classes in them. The gap between the blue-collar employees and students is so much smaller at Salem State than at all those schools I desired to attend. In this case, the employee and student were one and the same. And, better yet, he wanted to return to his community, to be a teacher.
What is there to say? I work at a good school.
J. D. Scrimgeour is the coordinator of creative writing at Salem State College.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.