[Publisher’s Note: Howard Stein, Boles Blogs author and inspiration, died at age of 90 on October 14, 2012 in Stamford, Connecticut. This article now appears in print as an equalizing effort to preserve Dr. Stein’s teaching and thinking as David Boles shares this, and other works, from his private Prairie Voice archive. Howard wrote this article in the Spring of 1984 and, 30 years later, the lessons are still ripe and rich and damning.] 

For those suffering the wounds of life, the university has become a hospital.  For the woman in her middle forties whose husband has left her for “a young thing” after twenty-four years of marriage and four children, the university is the first thought where she may go for help.

Either she will finish that degree she never intended to complete in the first place “if Mr. Right came along as expected,” and he did; or she will “go back to college” for the education she failed to get the first time ’round; or she will begin to think in terms of a career, and the university is the first step in that direction.

One thing is sure, she never looked upon the university as a place where intelligent people met to discuss important ideas.  Her idea of a university was a medical aid station to help her on the road to recovery.

For the man who is fifty-two, a corporate executive who doesn’t find intellectual stimulation among his colleagues, his peers, his neighbors, his bosses, or his friends (in his first encounter with the university, he was interested in politics, philosophy, and literature), the university is his first resource to bandage the wound of boredom.  Maybe he can find some distraction there, possibly even become a degree candidate (really commit himself to the task!); one evening a week he fancies himself a thinker, a student of life.

For the truth is that he is simply bored everywhere outside of his office.  In fact he doesn’t know why or wherefore; he hasn’t begun to diagnose his illness.  All he knows is that the apparent source of salvation for what ails you is the university.

And so he registers for the fall semester on a part-time basis with a full-time expectation.  He doesn’t want to take any tests (I’m too old for that nonsense) and he doesn’t really have time to do the papers justice (that stuff is for the kids, the real students).  In fact, he begins to think the wisest course for him is to audit.  Although he will try to do all the reading, he will definitely do more than try — he will resolve — to be present at every class session.

For the sixty-five year old anesthesiologist, who has finally on his doctor’s suggestion retired after forty round, firm, and fully packed years of practice, the university provides an ideal respite.  He never could take the time to read, to know about the humanities or about art (I devoted my life to science).

Now he has earned the opportunity to heal a wound which has been festering for more years than his wife and children know:  “What is all this living and working about?  What is it all for?  Another loaf of bread and another quart of milk?  Another sable and another Cadillac?  I can’t stand it any more.  I don’t know what my life means.”

The place to seek proper medication, he assumes, for such an illness is the university and the name of the prescription is academic knowledge.  So off he trots.  In fact, just to indicate his gratitude and to express his humanity, he volunteers his services to the college infirmary every Monday and Thursday from 1 to 4.  In addition to healing his internal wounds, he is keeping himself youthful in spirit if not in body by his frequent contact with the young at the university.

For the forty-two year old widow in whose life walked a fifty-eight year old widower and swept her off her feet and away to a new geography, the university provides a perfect antidote to the poisonous daily isolation to which she is doomed while he is off doing business which he will not give up and she is adjusting to being relocated in an entirely new environment.

She registers at the local university for two art courses (at least it should be commercial art, he says) since she doesn’t like the idea of business or real estate, either of which would interfere with their life (her going to “school” will not), keeps herself busy advancing her own personal development, and smiling all the way to the classroom which she shares with many twenty year olds.  She brings maturity to the class, and they treat her as “one of us.”

She is a student again (and not a bit too soon) and her youth is restored.  Her new life is indeed a new life, and the medication is working wonders.  The only discomfort is that her new lover does not like her studying in bed.

Or the forty-five year old wife who has raised three kids and a husband, who has taken her job seriously and accomplished it and is not abandoned by everyone; the kids are all grown and gone and the husband is continuing his habits which involve much extra business work (but you do like the money, don’t you?) and the need for attention as soon as he walks through the open door.

She resents the attention now, resents the dumping syndrome (life in the form of the children and the house was dumped on her head and only now is the weight of that burden beginning to life and reveal an unexpected light), and suddenly wants something for her.  She begins to think about “me,” and is desperate to satisfy an uncontrollable urge to be somebody.

“Maybe I should study social work, or business, or marketing research, or anything at the university.  I want something that will be mine and give me back to myself.”  And so she registers at the local university in sociology with the plan to try social work.  She too finds resentment when she takes her books to bed with her, although for years she shared a bed with annual reports, planned mergers, and position papers.

Or the fifty-year old advertising executive who takes early retirement from the pressure, the unrelenting pressure of the industry, who has enough money to really retire but is afraid of not being active, of dwindling into death.

“The young people at the university could profit from this old man’s practical experience,” he claims.  “I can teach them the business.  I think I should try to get appointed at the university.  They could use a man with my background.  At least the activity will give me something to do.”

And so he applies, and so he gets hired, and so he can’t stand the kids and their laissez-faire attitude.  “They won’t work the way I did.  The opportunity they got, and they won’t take advantage of it!  What the hell is the matter with those punks?  They’re late for class, they don’t do the homework, they don’t have anything to say when you call on them.  It’s murder.  They’re wasting my time and theirs.”

After two years of struggling and getting absolutely nowhere, he leaves the university, which is not the place for him, and begins to develop a second career in stocks and bonds, which is definitely the place for him.

Or the forty-year old dentist who wants to take a year (at least) off, go to the university to find himself because “I’m damned if I want to spend the rest of my life on this job.  Christ, it’s like being a carpenter.”

Or the pediatrician who says, “This job is nothing but runny noses and runny asses.  There must be more to my series of days and nights than this!”

The most common patient is the student on tenure, the student who begins at the university in his late teens and won’t leave in his late twenties, who can’t bear the thought of leaving the university to go out into the big, bad world.  He’s not interested in education, learning, training, or ideas.  He is interested in being protected, in hiding under the hospital sheets provided by the university.

All of these patients must be treated.  Their illnesses are based in fear and boredom.  Desperate for compassion and as deserving of it as any other patient, they nevertheless put some of us off, despite our realizing that their sickness can be neither dismissed nor ignored.

Some of these patients do recover, indicating that the hospital to which they have gone for treatment has done its job.  But most of them have a lingering illness which no university can cure.

That illness has to do with life expectation.  All of us have been raised in a society which establishes in its founding documents inalienable rights.  One of those rights is the pursuit of happiness.  No other nation has ever been so presumptuous as to believe its constituency would be provided with such an inalienable right — to pursue one’s own happiness.

For that right, once granted, also carries with it an inalienable obligation — to know what happiness is.  One cannot pursue what one does not know.  If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.  If you are pursuing happiness, you must know where you are going in order to recognize it when you get there.

Our citizenry actively expect — anticipate — happiness, just as they expect — anticipate — health.  When health is not there the society seeks medication in a variety of hospitals, one of which is the university.  But what exactly is this happiness which is not there?

Although it may be a natural right in this nation to seek happiness, many of us do not know what we are doing.  And, to repeat the statement above, one must know happiness in order to recognize it when it comes by. A major function of education in this nation, then, should be to help us describe, define, and even discover happiness as an objective.

If such was practiced in the university, then the medical function would be that of preventative medicine, not transitory medicine used to patch an illness too far gone for curing.

However, until the university wants to take its vocation seriously — as the medical hospitals have — it will continue to function as a half way station for disease-ridden people.  It may be offering half-ass therapy but it sure as hell isn’t offering education.

10 Comments

    1. Yes, I found these two new articles, and likely other pieces of his, in a big “Howard Pile” of cool letters and other artifacts. I should save any future finds for later perpetuation. SMILE!

      The “Happiness” thing in this article confounds me, though, and it’s moments like this that makes me wish he were alive to directly answer. If you knew Howard, he wasn’t terribly concerned with that pursuit — doing what you’d say you’d do was his guiding mantra — and, perhaps, the end of getting stuff done was an generally unrealized happiness.

      He’s right though, that happiness is an American Thing — it’s just too bad that phrase has become treacly in its use and exhaustion. There’s now no better plea in the world to excuse yourself from doing the right and moral thing than just saying, “I’m Not Happy.” Then, a Colonial, Pavlovian reaction is rendered by those around you who auto-reply, “Oh, well, you need to be happy, alright, then, do whatever.” — and the whole world implodes with unhappy people who never plan to officially be happy because they’re having too much fun getting sympathy and eroding the patience of others.

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      1. I would perhaps suggest “that doing what you said you would do” is being true to yourself which is one of the memes of “Happiness” touted around.

        Pete and I used to discuss Happiness – v- Contentment maybe he will chip in with that theory. I the end we evolved/moved on from that discussion to a “higher” goal – that of “experiencing joy” .

        The trouble with happiness is that it is subjective and personal and society expects/requires us to do the right and moral thing for the greater good , sometimes at the expense of our personal happiness.

        It is as you quite rightly point out used instead of “I do not like that – so I am not doing it” and yes people often use it as a method of garnering sympathy – the “poor me’s” are everywhere.

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        1. Yes, the subjective nature of happiness is likely why it was including as a founding notion — be yourself, find your own way, you are free to follow your doom if it makes you happy — the problem is the modern interpretation has become s Mobius strip of searching for happiness, finding it, and then wanting to find more of it in a different vein.

          I think the whole process is distracting and difficult because, if you’re alive and relatively healthy, that’s enough happiness for anyone. I wish “health” had replaced “happiness” in the founding initiative — but then I guess a modern skewering would be, “I’m not feeling healthy, I need to…” and then here we are again all over again and back on the happiness strip. SMILE!

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          1. You have hit the nail on the head there. I have got the “happiness” cracked – now I have to get the health balanced – that actually prevents me from doing more than my need for happiness ! (Statement of fact not a poor me! )

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          2. Yes, it’s all linked together — “whole body healing” is what we sort of call it here — but it’s the narrow definitions that are confounding and killing us.

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