Friday, April 27, 2012

Steely Dan -- "Reelin' in the Years" (1972)

The weekend at the college 
Didn't turn out like you planned
The things that pass for knowledge 
I can't understand
When I decided to write about my recent spring-break trip to visit colleges with my youngest son (who is a junior in high school), this is the first -- and only -- college-themed song that immediately came to mind.

There are a lot of great pop songs about high school, but not that many about college.  I'm not sure why that is.  But I do know that I have much more intense memories of high school and the people I went to high school with, and I suspect that is true for a lot of people -- including a lot of songwriters.

I've always associated Steely Dan's debut album, Can't Buy a Thrill, with my college years -- the album was released in the fall of 1972, shortly after I began my junior year, and I remember hearing this album playing in the dorms all the time that year.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who co-wrote Steely Dan's songs, met while they were both students at Bard College in New York.  Given the rather negative tone of the song's lyrics, I'm guessing that one of them had a bad experience with a girlfriend who went to another college.  

My theory is that the writer of the lyrics didn't get in his first-choice college, but that the girl did, and that she chose to go there rather than go where he went, and that the relationship was never he same after that.  Or maybe I'm reading too much into the words of the song based on certain personal experiences, which I DON'T care to talk about after all these years because WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT OF THAT, ESPECIALLY GIVEN THAT I'VE PRETTY MUCH PUT THE WHOLE THING OUT OF MY MIND FOREVER!

I've put three kids through college already, so I feel pretty blasé about helping my youngest child, Peter, decide were to go.  

I became a believer in small, liberal-arts colleges when my twin daughters were looking several years ago, and visited about a half-dozen such schools with them.  One of my girls ended up at Ohio Wesleyan (near Columbus, Ohio) and one ended up at Franklin & Marshall (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), and it's probably no coincidence that we visited four somewhat similar liberal-arts colleges in Ohio and Pennsylvania on our recent trip -- including two that my daughters were admitted to, but decided not to attend.

Franklin & Marshall College
I don't know whether Peter will end up applying to any of the schools we visited earlier this month, much less attending one.  The idea was just to start exploring the universe of liberal-arts colleges.

I planned the trip with my usual obsessive-compulsive care.  Unfortunately, as I had almost completed making arrangements to visit four schools in three days, I found out that one of them was holding a special overnight-visit program for a lot of admitted students, and wasn't able to do tours or interviews the day we had hoped to be there.  So we revised our driving route to go counterclockwise rather than clockwise, and reversed the order of the college visits -- to paraphrase Matthew 20:16, the last became first, and the first became last.

The first stop was Meadville, Pennsylvania -- north of Pittsburgh, and just south of Lake Erie -- which is the home of Allegheny College.

Like all the colleges we visited, Allegheny is small (2100 undergraduates), located in a small town (Meadville has about 13,000 residents), relatively old (it was founded in 1815), coeducational, was once closely affiliated with a Protestant denomination (the United Methodist Church), and is one of the 40 schools listed in the book Colleges That Change Lives.

That book was written by the late Loren Pope, who was the education editor of the New York Times for many years.  Pope believed that the benefits of attending the elite "name-brand" colleges were greatly overrated by parents and school counselors, and that there were many lesser-known schools that did a better job of developing a lifelong love of learning and providing the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college.  

While the colleges listed in Pope's book are diverse, they tend to be small (averaging about 1500 students -- the same size as my and my son's high schools), focussed on undergraduate education (most do not offer graduate degrees), and residential (students are expected to live on campus to more fully participate in the college community).  

Classes at these colleges are small, and there's an emphasis on writing regardless of your major.  There's plenty of opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities -- nearly everyone is involved in sports (these schools generally don't offer athletic scholarships), music, theatre, or student publications.

It's a little over 300 miles from our home to Meadville.  After we checked into our hotel we decided to take a quick drive through the town, and saw an amazing sight. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation facility in Meadville is bordered by an outdoor art project titled "Read Between the Signs," which was created by Allegheny faculty and students.  The whole 1200-foot-long sculpture/mural thing was constructed from old highway signs.  Here are several photos, which don't begin to do justice to this artistic extravaganza:

Next, I headed off to walk on the Ernst Trail, a paved hiker-biker trail that follows the right-of-way of an old railroad that used to run from Meadville to an amusement park on Conneaut Lake, which is the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania.

Here's a view from the trail up French Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River that was named by George Washington in 1753:

View of French Creek from the Ernst Trail
We had a 9 AM appointment at Allegheny.  Colleges do their best to make prospective students feel wanted, and Allegheny had a TV monitor in the admissions office that scrolled through the names of all the high-schoolers who were visiting that day, including my son:

After a brief interview with a student admission intern, another student gave us a tour of the very attractive campus.  Here's the school's original building, Bentley Hall, which was built only a few years after the college was founded in 1815:

Bentley Hall at Allegheny College
Here's a picture of a poster the British government printed during World War II in hopes of keeping civilian morale high:

That poster was obviously the inspiration for this one, which we saw in one of the Allegheny dorms:

Allegheny has some very interesting alums, including lawyer Clarence Darrow, President William McKinley, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (who dropped out after a year and moved to Cleveland to pursue a musical career).

The 1971 movie version of Richard Fariña's famous college novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, was filmed on the Allegheny campus.  Click here to read more about Fariña and this book.

After the tour had been completed, we grabbed some chocolate-chip cookies at the admissions office, hopped in the minivan, and were on the road by 11 AM.  We had to hustle to complete a 65-mile drive on mostly two-lane roads in time for a 1 PM appointment at our next stop, Hiram College.

Hiram was an even smaller college (1250 students) in an even smaller town.  (Hiram, Ohio is a tiny village -- it doesn't even have a gas station).  Hiram was founded in 1950, and was once affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, which was the church I attended growing up in Joplin, Missouri.

South Joplin Christian Church
One of Hiram's notable alumni was Harold Bell Wright, a Disciples of Christ minister who wrote the famous Ozarks novel, The Shepherd of the Hills.  The 1941 movie version of the book starred John Wayne, and a play based on the novel has been performed outdoors in Branson, Missouri for many years -- according to this promotional video, the play has been performed there 6500 times for more than 7 million people.

Other Hiram alums include President James A. Garfield and poet Vachel Lindsay.

We finished our visit with an admissions officer, a visit with a professor, and a student-led tour of the campus by about 4 PM, which gave me time for a walk-run on the college's track.  I went around and around the track as a group of students (boys and girls) played ultimate frisbee on the artifical-turf football field.

Henry Field at Hiram College
That night, we had a really bad dinner at a pub in a neighboring town before returning to the Hiram Inn -- a small hotel/conference facility on the campus -- for the night.

The Hiram Inn
After enjoying free waffles the next morning, we were on the road by 9 AM.  We'll cover the rest of the trip in the next 2 or 3 lines.

Here's "Reelin' in the Years":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

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