Darién revisited, as the school turns


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I have a bit history with this university.

My father was a professor here for around 25 years (and served on the athletics board for several years), my mother was a student here and then found a new life to follow (as a teacher at Northwest and then City High), one of my brothers was a graduate student here, won some grant money to conduct research in Somalia, and some years later as a result of that (and having learned one of the main languages), wound up running an NGO relief program for a while in that country. (Some months after he left, militias killed his successor, as I recall).

And, yeah, I’ve been a student here, too, from time to time. I would not, by the way, recommend being a student from time to time. As it turns out, it’s not an indicator for tremendous academic success.

I could regale you, say, with stories about an Honors section in chemistry that so annoyed me I dropped out of school and went on to a brilliant career as a gas-station attendant on the graveyard shift in a high-crime neighborhood in a large Midwestern city. The other students annoyed me, not the TA. But those stories would make me look much smarter than I am and the other students much dumber than they could possibly have been. Learning that you are by no means as smart as you think you are and others are in no way as dumb as they appear — and continue to appear, day by day — is one of the invaluable lessons higher education can teach you. (Though probably truly smart people learn that lesson in middle school or high school.)

So I guess you could say I love this place. I mean, I must — no matter what elsewhere I go to live in, sooner or later, I return. My friends and I used to joke about the Iowa City/University of Iowa yo-yo string — it always yanks you back. (I think we probably stole the idea from Thomas Pynchon’s V.)

And so it hurts me to see the UI ailing so much — financially, anyway. Furloughs? Here? Larger classes, fewer grad students? Fewer faculty, even?

Well, so much for the notion that the university and Iowa City are recession-proof. That idea seems to hold as much water, so to speak, as Virgil Hancher’s notion (at least, this is what I’ve been told) that the fine-arts campus should sit on the banks of the Iowa River. I mean, I’m sure it seemed beautiful at the time, but as June 2008 proved, there often is a price for beauty.

(Former Art Museum Director Howard Collison’s notion of moving the museum downtown doesn’t seem so farfetched now, does it?)

And I have to admit, I don’t have any great ideas about what the university should do. I can do a few things well, but I’m really bad with money. Well, I do have one idea, but it’s so far outside the proverbial box (yes, I, too, am really sick of that expression) that it will never come to fruition:

Legalize pot, tax the sale of it as the state taxes alcohol sales, and give the money to the state universities. Financial problems solved. (And, as a secondary effect, it would probably somewhat ameliorate the drinking problems downtown.)

Whatever the UI does to muddle through, I’m sure it will, simply because human beings seem to have the capacity to muddle through difficulty. (Call me an optimist; I can take it.) I hope we don’t lose the cinema department, though. (OK — I have a friend on the faculty. She’s a great documentary filmmaker. The university just can’t afford to lose people such as her.)

What I wish more than anything is that all the students here have the same pivotal moment I had with Writers’ Workshop visiting faculty member Mark Costello as he delved into a discussion of Barry Hannah’s story about a pilot: A moment in which I suddenly saw the story — and the world — in ways I never had imagined I could see.

Like Keats’ “Upon Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: “Silent, upon a peak in Darién.”

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