Friday, February 25, 2011

Jim Tudor (1988) on the Weekend Program experience

This is the text of the address given by Shimer College Weekend Program valedictorian Jim Tudor at the May 22, 1988 graduation.

At Shimer College we have two classifications of students, Weekday and Weekend students. We can summarize the difference by noting that for the most part the Day students have moved directly fro high school to college, play loud music, and give hard-hitting graduation speeches filled with constructive criticism for the school; while the Weekend students, like myself, have had their education interrupted, enjoy periods of silence, and give emotional graduation speeches filled with gratitude for the school. I have given a great deal of thought to the difference in the graduation speeches and with your indulgence will tell a first-person story in an effort to shed light on this difference.

This August my high school graduating class will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with a reunion. I plan to attend and hope that some of my old teachers do also. Quite a few of them did not think that I could graduate from college. They pointed out my bad attitude toward schooling and advised me to change my ways. As I recall, sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture produced one of two effects on me: either I would start day-dreaming about something more interesting or would become disruptive by trying to turn the lecture into a discussion.

In September of 1963, ignoring the advice of my high school teachers, I entered the State Universty of New York at Buffalo with a great deal of optimism. My first class had about three hundred students. My second class had even more. In a very short time I had raised day-dreaming to a fine art. About halfway through that first semester I dropped out. The following September I returned with a new determination only to drop out even sooner this time. I became extremely frustrated. I wanted two things from college, the degree as a symbol of accomplishment and more importantly, to be educated. I knew educated people and wanted what they had.

The next year saw a move to Chicago, a location filled with many colleges. Over the next ten years as a part-time evening student, I entered and dropped out of most of them. I did manage to complete a few math and science courses during that period and used them to get a job as a draftsman in an engineering department. I gave up the idea of a degree and decided to concentrate on my job. Here I achieved some success and moved up to Designer, Manager, and later Vice-President of Engineering. This last title satisfied the first of my two wants from college, a symbol of accomplishment; although there were many times when I would have traded everything for a degree.

One time in particular stands out in my memory. We had a foreign-born older gentleman working for us who had a degree in engineering from his native country. Ralph worked in our plant as a machine operator. He was always very friendly with me and often went out of his way to talk. One day Ralph came into my office with an application for a professional engineering license for his nephew, a recent graduate who wanted a job in this country. He needed references from three degreed engineers. I told Ralph that while I would like to help, I could not because I did not have a degree. After looking at me for a long time, he said "I didn't know I was talking to a high schooler." Ralph was never very friendly after that.

Despite the Ralphs in the world, I had more concern with education than a degree. Somewhere along the way I met a neighbor with a set of Great Books who knew a little about the idea behind them. After talking to him I decided that I would educate myself and began an extensive reading program. Later on I met a graduate of Shimer who told me that he never had a lecture in his four years of college. All his classes worked as a group discussion with the professor acting as a co-investigator. I felt sad about not knowing of this school earlier, but continued with my self-education program.

One day, while driving on the Kennedy expressway, I heard an advertisement on the radio about weekend classes at Shimer College geared toward working people. I became very excited. Many of the people driving near me became very excited also, but not about Shimer.

The next part of my story, while not literally true, does economically portray what did happen. Curiously enough I did not drop everything to apply for this weekend program. About a year later I did call, and made an appointment to come to an open house. My wife Dee agreed to join me. On the day of the open house, I announced to Dee that I was not going. Looking back, I now see that I had two fears at that time. What if I failed at Shimer, a school that sounded like my ideal? There could be no excuses this time. My second fear was an intuitive feeling that if I went to Shimer, I would never be the same person again.

Instead of articulating these fears, which I did not recognize, I told Dee that I did not want to go to college. We had had some logs burning in the fireplace that morning and I now sat in front of the remaining glowing coals. Dee sat down next to me and asked why. I told her that my self-education program was working just fine and that I didn't really need any help. She sat with me for some time staring at the glowing coals. After awhile she picked up the poker and nudged one of the coals away from the others. We watched and soon the glow from the lone coal went out. We went to Shimer that day and the following September I became a student once again. Thank you, Dee.

My first class at Shimer consisted of the professor and a few students sitting in a circle discussing the text that we had previously read. One student came in quite late and after sitting with us for some time asked, "Who is the teacher here?" I knew I was finally in the right place.

My intuition did prove correct; attending Shimer changed some of my most cherished beliefs. It would take another talk to tell of all the changes that took place. My other fear, that of failure, proved groundless. I did not drop out this time. Today is graduation.

So I ask the Day school students not to be too hard on us emotional Weekenders. Most of us have stories of defeat and frustration surrounding our attempts at education. Many had given up and never expected another chance at college. We are like starving people who suddenly find themselves at a gourmet dinner. We are the wrong ones to critique the cooking.

In closing I would like to say thank you to all the faculty at Shimer. As co-investigators, you personify the ideal in education. My special appreciation goes to the students. Education Shimer-style seems a fragile entity and it requires an unusual group of students to allow it to work. Over the years the faculty and students will come and go but hopefully there will always be a Shimer College, a place for people who have given up on further education.

In a short time Dr. Moon will ask us to move our tassels from one side to the other. At that moment I know of one student who will experience strong emotions. He will feel mostly gratitude but there will be a small part of him that will want to say, "Ralph, you are no longer talking to a high schooler."

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