Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sat, 9 Oct 1993

As I was gliding over the asphalt this morning, I happened to look up and catch sight of a colorful and artful banner eerily spotlighted in a field of black by the lamp post it was bedecking. Surrounding a decorative logo, were the words: "Celebrate Valdosta State University." It is one of hundreds that are still hanging from every light and telephone pole on the streets surrounding the campus. They were part of the celebrations marking the college's attainment of university status. It was quite a show. On July 1st, after months of meticulous preparation, utilizing time and energy that rivaled a presidential inauguration, with all the glitz of a Wal-Mart opening, with the sights and sounds of a gala debutante ball, a bar mitzvah, a confirmation, and a sweet sixteen party all wrapped up into one, Valdosta State College became Valdosta State University! It was a media event that resembled one of the 1930s film extravaganzas. There were laser beam shows, rock bands, food tables, balloons, orating politicians, puffed-up administrators, receptions, hot-air balloon races, road races, faculty rushing to alter their vitae, souvenirs, a huge celebration cake, fund raising, roaming crowds, secreted fraternity alcohol, fraternity bashes, a final count down, and the inevitable fireworks. So few questions about to what purpose, lots of assumptions.

I've seen those banners and posters and God knows what else everywhere I've gone for the last four months, but I guess a conversation with some students the other day in the Blazer Room about what the idea of what a university meant to them made me particularly aware of that banner this morning. Part of our discussion went like this:

"I wouldn't have come to VSU if I had to graduate last year," one freshman admitted.

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, it wasn't a university."

"Does that make a difference?" I asked.


"Why?" I asked.

"Coming from a university looks better than having gone to just a college."

"Why?" I asked.

"My diploma would look more impressive."

"Why?" I asked.

"It means more to people."

"So?" I asked.

"It'll be easier to get a better job."

"So?" I asked.

"I can make more money."

"Why?" I asked.

"I can be happier!"

With each set of questions and answers the students were giving me looks and twisting their faces as if I were becoming an increasing menace.

"Damn, Dr. Schmier, can't you say anything more than 'why' and 'so'?"

Finally, I said, using an approach I learned at my son's school, "What if I could give you all the money that would make you happy, on the condition you could not get a job? Would you still come to the university?"

They were confused. There were strange looks at me and each other; there was silence; there was hesitation; then, there were the stammering "uh...well...uhs."

These students will go into the world on the treadmills of success that we have helped to construct, operate and perpetuate, believing that happiness is connected with material gain. The tragedy is that we too often are reinforcing their visions and values. They and I hear the same words coming out from our Admissions Office, Counseling Office, and Student Affairs Office; from our President, Vice-Presidents, Deans, Department Heads, and too many faculty. I hear these same words from local legislators, businessmen, parents, and community leaders. I hear teachers, principals, members of Boards of Education, and Superintendents talk eloquently of "university track" and disparagingly of "vo-tech track." I hear it from other institutions rushing to acquire loftier titles, develop bigger programs, enhance reputations, inflate egos, grab the respect and clout lacking in being a mere community college or junior college or vocational school or a college. They are all charmed by the flowing pronunciation of the "U" word; they are seduced by their assumption of the meaning of the word; they are enticed by the marketability of the word to attract students and sell job-seekers; they are satisfied by the uncritical image of the word. Make a wish upon a star, click your ruby glass shoes together three times, wave a magic wand, just change the name from college to university, and the institution automatically becomes a better place to get better credentials to get a better job to better keep up with the Joneses. So few questions about meanings and purposes, so many assumptions.

While some people are satisfied with the image of the word, others are satisfied with the "objects" associated with the "U" word. "Come see our university," say our recruiters and Foundation personnel. They take prospective students and their parents, prospective donors, and alumni on tours of "objects." A professor or even a student can walk by their entourage. Is he or she stopped and introduced to offer a human dimension to the institution? No. Our tour guides are too busy pointing at objects. "Our student body is this big"; "we have these many fraternities and sororities"; "have you seen the national standings of our so and so team"; "we have so many attractive buildings"; "see that fountain"; "look at our lovely grounds"; "all that grass, all those trees and flowers"; "here are the labs"; "see all those computers"; "we have so and so many Ph.D.s on our faculty"; "our professors go to so many conferences and give so many papers." Still, so few questions and lots of assumptions.

Some people speak with pride about what I call the "toys" of the "U" word. They brag about the growing number of programs, degrees, and courses. Everything has to be on a professional track: the pre-thises, the pre-thats, and the pre-everything elses. The "toys" are all designed to provide the most efficient and effective way of making the students marketable, to package them, to give to the students the tools to make it "big" out there. Still, so few questions and lots of assumptions.

But, I don't think the "image," "object" or "toys" of the "U" word constitutes the essence of the "U" word. So few of us are concerned with the substance of a university: to liberate us from images; to break our chains of preoccupation with objects; to enlighten us about the purpose and meaning of the tools, rather than just how to use the tools; to endow us with broadened understanding, rather than limit us with barreled sight; to instill in us a love of learning rather than just a technical skill; to launch us on a never-ending adventure of self-development, rather than end the quest with a diploma; to expand the range of our experience, not to narrow it; to urge us to take the risk of challenging and examining uncritically held assumptions, not just playing the game or going with the flow. Above all, a university is a place to find a calling, a life's work, to combine the technology with the substance. A university is not just a place to get a job, but a place concerned with the kind of job that is done and with the character of the person doing the job, of being concerned with the deeper visions of pride in craftsmanship of the skills needed to produce or provide, the deeper dimension of dedication to excellence of what is produced and provided, and the deeper values of concern for and ethical dealings with all others. It's bad enough that students think that a course is valuable only if it satisfies a major requirement. But, if they walk across the graduation stage thinking, "Wow, I'm finished with this rat race. I'm educated; I'm a professional. Now, I'm going to be a so and so, and make as much money as I can by hook or by crook, no matter what I have to do to get it or matter whom I have to run over," they did not receive a true university education. If we professors tell them that a course is valuable only if it fulfills a department requirement and watch them walk across the stage thinking, "They've completed their so and so major with a so and so GPA average and are now getting the degree that's going to open doors for a good job," then we have not given those students a true university education. The students have been brain-washed; we have brain-washed. Maybe, we have been brainwashed as well. Still, so few questions, a lot of assumptions.

None of us have asked ourselves or others about the meanings, the "what is the good of it all?" I'd like to have a conversation with students that would go something like this:

"What is the good of coming to VSU?" I would ask.

"To be the best I can be?"

"Why?" I would ask.

"To help others."

"Why?" I would ask.

"To leave the world a better place."

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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