John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What My Father Wanted Me To Do In College

When I set out for college in 1961 as a seventeen year old, already very homesick kid, there were only two things that my father really wanted me to do in college—beyond going to class that is: 1) get on the crew team and rowing; 2) join a fraternity.

His reasoning: well, he had been an outstanding high school and college varsity athlete and believed in the value of the experience for character development and learning of teamwork, etc. And I had never shown the slightest interest in athletics, and, in fact, the contrary, a pronounced aversion. But he thought crew might appeal to me because it was a “non-contact” sport, and because there were no heroes. Every “oarsman” was seamlessly blended with the others. There were no “standouts”.

Secondly, the fraternal experience: well, Dad had done that too. And he also that that would be very good for me. Why? Because he told me I would learn how America works, how it is run. He was referring, literally, to the fact that America as he knew it was run by former fraternity boys; and he saw the culture of the fraternity as being identical to the culture of for-profit corporations, which also ran America. So, he argued, joining a fraternity would be a perfect learning experience for me.

What did I do? What did he get of what he wanted? He got half. As Lyndon Johnson said, “Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all”. He and I got crew. I was a junior varsity “lightweight” for two years. Then I decided I wanted to be a serious student. Crew was a jealous mistress who demanded fidelity and discipline. I couldn’t do both so I quit the crew team. My father was broken hearted about this.

And what about the fraternal experience. I declined. I found abhorrent the “rush” practices I observed and wanted no part of such groups. I have often wondered what would have happened to me as a life course if I had joined. I received a bid from a group one of whose members who respected me and sought my brotherhood, went on to become a senior partner with Goldman Sachs. He was a year ahead of me. I wonder if he would have asked me to join him.

About 20 years after graduating from college I did join a fraternity, Delta Upsilon, at USC, a group I had been conned into serving as a faculty advisor. But that is another blog.

OK, if I had a son who was going to college today, what kind of group would I tell him to join, to learn how America is run and works? I had this opportunity in 1986 and 1994 when my two sons went to college. I did give them advice on what groups to join. And I urged both of them to join fraternities! Both did. One dropped out.

But I didn’t urge them to do what I would recommend now: join a non-profit community organization. Get involved. Preferably, get on the board. Obtain the experience of having fiduciary responsibility for one of America’s 1.75 million such groups. I have been on three of these in my career. Currently, I am chair of the Brevard Music Center Board of Trustees, which has responsibility for an elite, highly selective music training educational institution for gifted young musicians. We don’t have any college students on our board. I wish we did. It would be a great learning experience for them.

They would see how adult, professional, leadership groups work. How decisions are made. How visions are developed and pursued. How strategic planning is done. How succession is planned for and executed. How power is allocated and used. All kinds of things. So much could be learned.

I hope you urge your students to get involved in non-profits. It is clear that we cannot ask our government to solve all our problems. It is unable, unwilling, and there are not sufficient resources.

Get your students to be thinking about non-profit organizations, no matter what your father, or mother, may have wanted you to do in college.

-John Gardner

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