Friday, October 1, 2010

Dark Days on the Banks of the Old Raritan

Sol iustitiae et occidentem illustra
Sun of righteousness, shine upon the West also.

Irony now swirls around the Rutgers sunburst seal, with its adaptation of the Latin motto of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, connoting the original college’s early affiliation with the Dutch Reformed Church.

Rutgers is my alma mater, specifically Rutgers College, New Brunswick, College Avenue Campus. Rutgers used to be known for these people: Paul Robeson, Joyce Kilmer, Milton Friedman, George Segal, and more recently, James Gandolfini, Kristin Davis, Calista Flockhart, Mario Batali, and Pulitzer Prize novelist Junot Diaz.

Now it is known as the college where Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei toyed with the life of Tyler Clementi for their own twisted amusement, after which he jumped from the George Washington Bridge.

People have been cruel and stupidly cruel to one another forever. But the hurt that can be inflicted with the speed of a tweet or the upload of a video is of course our own age’s contribution to man’s inhumanity to man, which, by the way, is a line from Robert Burns’s 1787 poem “Man Was Made to Mourn: A Dirge,” written 21 years AFTER Rutgers was chartered as Queens College in 1766. Rutgers is one of the oldest universities in the country.

“My father sent me to old Rutgers, And resolv'd that I should be a man”

Rutgers College only went coed in 1972, so the words from its school song from 1869 can be forgiven.

Shortly after I graduated, Rutgers went from distinct, independent colleges—-Rutgers College, Douglass College (which Robin Morgan of Sisterhood Is Powerful fame once called “the cradle of feminism”) and Cook College (where the Rutgers tomato was cultivated)-—to a federated university system. For instance, it went from each college having its own English department/faculty, to one University-wide English department. This was part of a bid to be the Michigan of the East, with a football team to match it. I know this because I was asked to speak at a trustee dinner about the academics at Rutgers when this plan was talked about.

And I didn’t really get to say what I wanted. The academics at Rutgers were excellent, but in the 1980s it had an air of anti-intellectualism. The frats were in their heyday, and they weren’t as charming or clever as Animal House. Only two full classes had graduated since women had been admitted, and the status quo was still adjusting.

It was less of an adjustment for the “artistic” dorm I was in called Demarest, which had Special Interest sections. We were all feverishly worldly in the Petri dish of hormones and cerebral gymnastics that is dorm life. Everyone at Demarest was a little off center from the mainstream, in various ways, and so being different was embraced.

Demarest remains the Special Interest housing, and I am certain that Tyler Clementi would be alive today if he had been placed there instead of his dorm on Busch campus, more of a bastion of regular old Jersey boys. It’s a sad, chilling, tormenting thought about how something like a housing lottery can have such an effect on our lives.

A Course in Civility
What the hell is going on at Rutgers in general? Since when do you try to teach civility at a university level?

Completely separate from this tragedy, Rutgers had initiated what it calls “Project Civility, a two-year, university-wide dialogue at Rutgers, sponsored by the Offices of Student Affairs and Undergraduate Education at Rutgers- New Brunswick.”

It so happens that the kick-off event was Sept. 29, “Choosing Civiltiy,” with another “Can We Be Kinder Towards One Another on the Rutgers Buses?”

Rutgers runs free buses between the campus of College Ave., Cook, Douglass, and Busch. What the hell is going on on these buses that such intervention is necessary?

As I said, in my day the frats went too far in hurling verbal abuse at women walking to class on College Ave., but they were reigned in. (I see Phi Gamma Delta [FIJI!] lost its charter. It was a great place for dance parties, but that was before ruffies.)

Clearly, there is some sort of atmosphere at Rutgers that is souring the experience of the young people going there for their college experience. The university still has 70 Greek charters, but there's no evidence that the frat system is at the root of today's malaise.

As for Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. For whatever reason they thought it was acceptable to maliciously tape anyone in an intimate moment and post it on the internet, well, they were fatally wrong.


dorki said...

When this incident hit the news I was dumbfounded that anyone should be so cruel.

Maybe I am thinking of a society where the 24-hour instant information flow where a cabal of sick-os could get their "15 minutes of fame" did not exist. Probably there were just as many deviant-minded people in the '40s and '50s of my youth.

Indeed we all need to be “Choosing Civility”, but unfortunately it seems to me that a cloud of hatred and bigotry is becoming more prevalent in our society. It becomes all the more imperative that each of us do the right thing ourselves and to speak up to counter abuses and excesses as we see them.

M.A.Peel said...

dorki, I completely agree about speaking out whenever we ourselves encounter abuses or excesses.