Learning from the past and present

Topchik Photo

Writer and editor Jack Topchik reflects on the college experience. Photo: Mary Kate McKenna
By Jack Topchik

I was packing for college in the summer of 1963 as I watched Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Three months into my freshman year, on my way to a class in Ayres Hall, I learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Storm clouds were growing over not only a college campus in East Tennessee but throughout a country still basking in the final vestiges of one of the most idyllic periods of American history. The baby boom was galloping in full stride. During my four years at UT, enrollment doubled from the 11,000 students on campus during my freshman year. Although it was a time of expansion, optimism and unbridled enthusiasm, there were few students or professors of color on campus. The Southeastern Conference still had an unwritten rule forbidding integrated athletics. A growing war in Vietnam kept male students uneasy as they worried about their futures upon graduation. The times were ripe for reform.

It was a heady time for freshmen at UT in 1963. Many of the students were the first in their families to go to college. Graduation in four years was the plan and the expectation. It was unthinkable to assume that it should take more time than that. The freshman class of 1963 would become part of the last one-degree generation. Only a relatively few majors required graduate study. Taking the time to stay in school for an advanced degree was an unthinkable luxury for most students. Most of them went directly to work, and in 1967 there was work to be had.

I spent 40 years at The New York Times as an editor in the Times News Services Division, selecting and editing news, photos and graphics for, at one time, some 600 newspapers, magazines and government agencies throughout the world.

I was well-trained at UT Knoxville, not only in the department of journalism, which at that time was part of the College of Business, but also because of the freedom that permitted me to take as many courses as time would allow, not only in my preferred areas of history and political science but also in the social sciences, humanities and literature. This expansive background would prove vital to me in the competitive world of daily journalism. A liberal arts curriculum must never be allowed to disappear at our colleges and universities. It remains the straightest road to intellectual development.

There are some dangerous signs today for the future of undergraduate education. Too many students are being steered away by family members and some guidance counselors and advisors from majors that may not lead directly to professional and financial success.

What I have experienced has been a steady decline in writing skills and in a commitment to master those skills. Young men and women have a limited vocabulary and an apparent lack of incentive to improve it. Students admit that they do not read books beyond texts required by teachers and professors, and they do not believe they will ever need advanced writing skills as a means of primary communication. They could not be more wrong.

America’s colleges and universities continue to exert a powerful influence on their students and, indeed, a continued obligation to prepare them for a world that is steadily moving away from traditional means of communication. The function of language cannot be relegated to a text message, and our universities must stand tall in defense of a language that has given us a remarkable history of ideas and imagination.

Today, opponents of liberal college admissions cite European systems that exclude a high percentage of applicants through comprehensive testing. I believe that would widen the already perilous socioeconomic gap in the United States. We allow that to happen at our own peril.

College has become the great social engine producing America’s middle class. Our universities have an enormous obligation in this endeavor – to keep college affordable, relevant and purposeful.

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Jack Topchik (Knoxville ’67), a former editor at The New York Times News Service, writes a column for his hometown newspaper, The Frederick News-Post, in Maryland and teaches courses on the power of the press in American history