I get alumni magazines from two colleges/universities I attended. These institutional organs are unapologetic boosters of the accomplishments of alumni, faculty, and students. They also trumpet never-ending capital campaigns, improvements to facilities, and new and refurbished buildings. The latest round of news from my two schools feature significant new and rebuilt structures, accompanied by the naming of these structures after the foundations, contributors, and faculty/administrators associated with their execution. Well and good, you might surmise, but I always have mixed feelings. No doubt there are certain thresholds that must be met for programs to function and excel: stadia and gyms, locker rooms, concert halls and theaters, practice and rehearsal spaces, equipment, computer labs, libraries and their holdings, etc. Visiting smaller schools having inadequate facilities always brought that point home. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why anyone chooses a school: for the facilities.
Since the late sixties or so, I have witnessed one school after another (not just in higher education) becoming what I think of as lifestyle schools. Facilities are not merely sufficient or superior; they range into the lap of luxury and excess. It’s frankly embarrassing that the quality and furnishings of dormitories now exceed what most students will enjoy for decades post-graduation. In my college years, no one found it the slightest bit embarrassing to have meager accommodations. That’s not why one was there. Now the expectation is to luxuriate. Schools clearly compete to attract students using a variety of enticements, but delivering the best lifestyle while in attendance was formerly not one of them. But the façades and accoutrements are much easier to evaluate than the academic programs, which have moved in the opposite direction. Both are now fraudulent at many schools; it’s a game of dress-up.
That rant, however, may only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I cannot escape the sense that we celebrate ourselves and our spurious accomplishments with amazing disregard for their irrelevance. Unlike many, who dream of achieving immortality through proxy, the desire to see one’s name on the side of a building, in a hall of fame, on an endowed chair, etched in a record book, or otherwise gouged into posterity confounds me. Yet I can’t go anywhere without finding another new feature named after someone, usually posthumously but not always, whose memory must purportedly be preserved. (E.g., Chicago recently renamed the Circle Interchange after its first and only female mayor, Jane Byrne, causing some confusion due to inadequate signage.) The alumni magazines were all about newly named buildings, chairs, scholarships, halls, bricks, and waste cans. It got to be sickening. The reflex is now established: someone gives a pile of money or teaches (or administers) for a time, name something after him or her. And as we enter championship and awards season in sports and cinema, the surfeit of awards doled out, often just for showing up and doing one’s job, is breathtaking.
Truly memorable work and achievement need no effusive praise. They are perpetuated through subscription. Yet even they, as Shelley reminds us, pass from memory eventually. Such is the way of the world in the long stretches of time (human history) we have inhabited it. Readers of this blog will know that, in fairly awful terms, that time is rapidly drawing to a close due to a variety of factors, but primarily because of our own prominence. So one might wonder, why all this striving and achieving and luxuriating and self-celebrating when its end is our own destruction?