1. Stream of consciousness I- college

My college story is a bit disjointed. From the time I was a sophomore in high school, I wanted to attend Cal Tech, whose proper name is California Institute of Technology. It is probably the premier physics and engineering school in the world but is much less well known than MIT. In those days, the student body totaled about 900 and the faculty had more members than the students. Even today the freshman class is only 264 students.

I had no hope of paying the tuition, although tuition was a small amount, nothing like the present situation. I did, however, have excellent grades and the National Merit Scholarship program had just begun. That year, the applicants were to be screened from the Scholastic Aptitude Test. There were no practice tests or review courses then. We were told one day that we were all taking a test and marched into the study hall. We took the test and to this day, I don’t know what my score was. The criteria for scoring has changed over the years and, with the advent of political correctness, the name of the test has changed.

It was first introduced in 1926, and its name and scoring have changed several times. It was first called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, but now SAT does not stand for anything, hence it is an empty acronym.

The changes have mostly resulted in “dumbing down” the tests and scores after complaints from the usual suspects. Still, the scores are the only objective way of assessing college applicants. Cal Tech, for example, lists its new freshman scores.

Academically, they are the top tier, with average scores on the SAT critical-reading, mathematics, and writing sections of 747, 783, and 753, respectively. In addition, about three-quarters of the class scored a perfect 800 on the SAT Math Level 2 subject test. Fifty-seven percent of the entering class has already been involved in research, and 13 percent of the students have already been authors on published papers.

Anyway, I didn’t go to Cal Tech although I was accepted and even had a dorm room assigned. My National Merit Scholarship didn’t come through. There were few other scholarships, or at least I didn’t know of any. I got a letter instead, which said, since I didn’t need financial aid, I was getting the letter. I crumpled it up and threw it away. I can’t believe how naive I was about getting funding but I just didn’t know anything. What I also didn’t know was that a packet was sent to the parents of finalists. One item in the packet was a statement of income, although the scholarship was not based on need, apparently that was one criterion. My father refused to fill it out. It was no one’s business how much money he made, which wasn’t very much by that time. His prosperous career was pretty much behind him.

In the meantime, I had been interviewed by a Cal Tech professor who traveled to Chicago, my dorm room had been assigned and I was ready to go except for the lack of ability to pay the tuition. I look back in wonder at my own naivete in not contacting the school after my mother told me about the uncompleted financial statement. Maybe they would have helped. I just didn’t know enough.

A month or so later, I was contacted by the Chicago group of USC alumni. I was vaguely familiar with the University of Southern California and, since my prospects were otherwise dim, I accepted. I was interviewed by Robert E Brooker, then a vice-president of Sears, and was awarded a full scholarship plus a $500 stipend for living expenses. My high school’s unfamiliarity with my new university was exhibited by the fact that they sent my records to UC, Berkley. I got a letter from Berkley accepting me for admission and asking me to submit an application. We finally got that straightened out and I arrived in Los Angeles about two weeks before classes began to find a place to live.

I went through college and medical school, both at SC, mostly on scholarship. I did lose my scholarship one year through the effects of too much extracurricular activity. I was taking a calculus course from this little Indian professor. He was difficult to understand but I thought we had an agreement. If I got an A on the final, I would get a B in the course. I had been delinquent in turning in homework assignments but had finally seen the light. The final exam came and, since I had finally begun to study systematically, I got the A. All my life, I had gotten by with minimal study. I was finally motivated enough to do the work necessary instead of just enough to “get by.”

Well, I went over to the Math office (In those days a small bungalow painted a dreary sunshine yellow as all the temporary university buildings were.) and the posted grades were up. I had gotten a C. I needed that B to keep a B average and my scholarship. I was doomed. I made an appointment to talk to the professor. He didn’t show up. I made another with the same result. A couple of days later, I was walking down University Avenue when I saw him across the street. I called to him and started to cross. He saw me, his eyes bulged and he started to run the other direction. I didn’t think I would improve my grade by chasing him so that was it.

In those days, there were no student loans except some private funds that I knew nothing about. My father had left high school at the age of 15 to join the Navy in World War I. I have a picture of him in his uniform. When the war ended, he wanted out of the Navy so he told them he was only 15. He never went back to school, which is a shame because he was a very bright man and could have been a very good engineer. As it was, he did pretty well in the middle years of his life and disdained education. I never saw him open a book.

My mother had graduated from high school (In 1915) and from “Business College,” which taught her to type fast enough to be a legal secretary. She could type my high school papers as I dictated them at normal speaking speed. She encouraged me to study and to think about college but nobody knew how you went about it. I knew I wanted to be an engineer and I knew I wanted to go to Cal Tech, to me the pinnacle of engineering (I still think so).

I eventually, settled in a fraternity house, Phi Gamma Delta, because, in those days at least, fraternity houses were the cheapest place to live and, of course, the fact that they asked me. I had been staying there at the request of my local sponsor, a UCLA Phi Gam alum, while I looked for an apartment. USC then had almost no dorms for men, unless they were football players. When I was asked to pledge, I accepted. It was a good decision in many ways (I needed socialization) but it didn’t help studying. I often wonder how I would have turned out if I had made it to Cal Tech.

Engineering at USC was a weak department but I did not take sufficient advantage of what was there. When I lost the scholarship, I was somewhat at sea. What was I to do ? The tuition was $17 a unit, about $272 a semester. I didn’t have it but, at that time, it wasn’t out of reach like it is now. I got a job. I went to work for Douglas Aircraft as what was called a Mathematician I. This was a junior engineer. I had a couple of fraternity brothers who were working there, working their way through the last year of engineering school. In those days, and the point of this stream of consciousness, is that you could work your way through school, even a private university.

My job was in the wind tunnel facility. I spent most of the day with a Marchant desk calculator and the rest programming an IBM 650 computer. This was about the era when the term “bug” was first used for computer malfunctions. We were told that it derived from the fact that one of the COBOL programmers had spent weeks trying to solve a programming error only to find that a moth had gotten into the machine and was contacting random connections.

After six months at this job, I decided to go back to school at night. I was lying on the beach at Playa Del Rey (now under the take-off zone of LAX) in January talking with my roommates about my future. They were both pre-med majors. I had begun thinking about it several years before, even before dropping out of school. John Paxton, whose father was a surgeon, suggested I take a basic biology course (My high school had zero biology) and another advanced course called “Comparative Anatomy.” The latter was a junior level course and maybe too tough for me but, he said, it would be the closest thing to medical school I would find in undergraduate.

I signed up for both courses, paying the $119 tuition myself. It was a good decision. That was January 1959. Two years later, I had been accepted to medical school.

Now, there is no way I could do that and the alternative would be thousands of dollars in debt.

Next: Stream of Consciousness II

Tags: economics, education

Leave a Reply