From the second-floor window of my office, facing west and shaded in the fall afternoon by a line of tall elms, I look down idly through Venetian blinds at the students below. They cluster in small groups and walk back and forth on the grassy hillocks hemmed in by the campus theater across the lawn and, to the right, the new music building.
The campus has expanded quite a bit during the 27 years I’ve been teaching here. My office is in O’Connor Hall, a three-story classroom building flanking the mission church at the center of campus — or a 1926 replica of the original mission, at any rate. In fact, O’Connor Hall, with a cornerstone dated 1912, is fourteen years older than the mission church.
O’Connor has heavy walls, wide staircases, an arched colonnade on one side, and a high passageway through its middle, rounded at the ceiling, with gray marble sides and strips of chiseled leaf. In the rainy season, the translucent thick-glass tiles on the raised porch behind the colonnade can be slippery.
The newer buildings — despite their adobe tile roofs to match the California mission decor — are less weighty, more spare, more functional, vaguely brittle in design and construction. The main library, built in 1964 during the first years of the school’s physical expansion, is already scheduled for demolition. It will be replaced by a bigger and much uglier state-of-the-art “Media Facilities Complex,” or words to that effect; it will not be called a library.
Do students ever change? It’s Monday afternoon, late in September, the first day of class. I have four classes this quarter, and I’ve gone through the introductory routines with each. Looking out my office window, I see three or four students of mine from past years, and I think I recognize a few of my new students. I don’t know the names yet, but I seem to know the new students. I already know, on sight, which ones are going to be dependable and which will be the flakes. “You can tell on the first day!” an old colleague, now retired, once told me. “It’s uncanny — you can see it in the whites of their eyes!”
In a few weeks I’ll have their personal stories, from essays or class discussions, or indirectly from their behavior. In some ways there’s a widening gulf between them and me. Two of my own children are older than my current students. I was born during the Roosevelt administration and World War II; my new students were born during the Reagan administration and the last years of the Cold War.
If they are as knowledgeable as last year’s students, they will not be able to date Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency or World War II accurately within three decades, and they won’t know what the Cold War was about. They will be familiar with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Matthew Broderick, and Russell Crowe; but James Stewart, Claire Bloom, Orson Welles, and Henry Fonda are names they won’t know, much less Walker Percy or even J.D. Salinger.
Yet, aside from the incorrigibly opportunistic among them, they will be immune as well to the blandishments of political correctness, prompting the aging progressives on campus to fault them for “apathy.” Many of them will be unable to date the Civil War within the right century, but most will be equally indifferent to the daily status of each week’s left-wing cause célèbre.
They will appear to be casual relativists, even without the propaganda of multiculturalism. Those who espouse any traditional religious faith at all will seem taken with a kind of Christianity Lite — “social justice” of a narrowly prescribed character and self-congratulatory execution, nestled in warm glows of nonjudgmentalism, without the Cross or even the Resurrection. What else? I teach at a university historically Catholic gone secular, and these are my students.
On the other hand, I can’t say they’re so different, really, even from me. We’ll be reading Homer and Aeschylus, snippets of Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides and Virgil and (by my reckoning) key chunks of Scripture and St. Augustine. Within weeks they’ll be startling me with insights I never thought of, and startling themselves, apparently, with how judgmental they needfully are.
I’ll be responding to their writing with a ferocity they’re not used to (and with much exasperation, but that part’s a secret) — and they’ll come back, most of them, with real effort and, some of them, with surprising elegance. By the fifth or sixth week, the females won’t be chewing gum in class or slurping cokes, and the males will walk into class with the bills of their baseball caps properly turned forward, doffing the caps after they sit down.
What is there about reading the classics and sweating nickels over the choice of words in an essay? The effort seems to bring out latent good manners in young people. I never raise the topic in class; the change just happens.
Among the freshmen, a fair number will have the right mix of curiosity and aggressive docility to become Classics majors, but very few will also be sufficiently at loose ends about “career goals” to put up with learning Greek and Latin; most of the talent needed for a major in Classics will already be claimed by Computer Engineering, or Finance, or Biology on the pre-med track.
I get into this reverie once a year now, looking out my office window at the passing students in the afternoon of the first class day. I was pushing 40 when they were born; by the time they reach my age, I will have been dead, no doubt, for some twenty years. What kind of world will they inhabit? What kind of company will they be for my own children?