Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Illusion of Solidity

If you haven’t seen Brendan O’Malley’s piece on the closure of Newbury College, near Boston, it’s well worth reading.  Apparently O’Malley taught history there, as a full-time professor, for a few years, including the college’s final year.  The piece is mostly a firsthand account of what it felt like to get through that last semester, after the closure had been announced.

It’s haunting, but in the gentle way that sticks.  The part of it that made sense to me was the visceral sense that the college can’t possibly be closing -- it’s right here!  Just look at the buildings! It’s a thing that exists!

Physical reality, especially when it’s right in front of you, can seem permanent.  How can a college just go away?

Newbury did, of course, as have Burlington, Dowling, and Green Mountain, among others.  A few in my own state are rumored to be on life support, though I’m not at liberty to name them.  Many more are dealing with long-term decline; they aren’t at death’s door yet, but if something doesn’t change within the next few years, they will be.  Speaking with colleagues, the single biggest obstacle they face is denial. Too many people on campus think like O’Malley’s piece suggests. How can the college go away?  It’s right here!

By the time it’s indisputable, it’s irreversible.

Denial can be useful, in some ways.  To the extent that it prevents panic, and allows people to continue to do good work, it’s helpful.  (I’m drawing on denial to deal with The Boy’s impending departure for college.) Freaking everybody out isn’t likely to be helpful.

But an unwarranted belief in permanence can make it deceptively easy to dismiss changes that could’ve helped, had they been adopted in time.  The sheer physical reality of the place seems to contradict abstract-sounding warnings, and to reduce a sense of urgency.

I don’t know whether Newbury was saveable.  The economics of a tuition-driven private college without a prestigious name in the Boston area are an uphill battle on a good day.  O’Malley’s piece doesn’t mention any major efforts in which faculty were enlisted, other than to keep on keeping on until it was done.  But the habits of mind looked familiar.

Of course, even physical reality can change before you know it.  Through the miracle of Google Earth, I recently found out that the house across the street from the house I grew up in -- a house that used to have a family with three kids who used to do 270 degree dives off the roof into snowbanks -- is boarded up.  As is the house my Dad lived in before he remarried. As is the house my grandparents lived in. The car industry’s troubles hit the Michigan side of the family, and Kodak’s troubles hit the Rochester side. Houses that were parts of my childhood, places that I remember clearly, have gone dark.  Their sheer physicality couldn’t save them. The economic undertow was too strong.

On a day-to-day basis, concerns that seem abstract can be easy to ignore.  But buildings are, to use a 90’s term, not merely physical constructions but also social ones.  They fulfill their roles only as long as their roles exist. The solidity they offer is illusory.  Kodak Park couldn’t save Kodak; in fact, what’s left of Kodak had to implode Kodak Park because it no longer served a purpose.  

O’Malley’s piece offers a humane, thoughtful, and absolutely believable glimpse into a reality that I hope never to experience directly.  It also inadvertently shows how easily such a reality could happen, and how quickly a campus can go from refuting warnings to memorializing them.