What I Learned at Columbia

A portion of the Alma Mater statue by Daniel Chester France (1903) on the Columbia University campus in New York

My mother didn’t approve. When I announced to her that I was planning to quit my good editorial job in New York to attend Columbia University full time – to get a fine education and a B.A. degree in Literature and Writing, a credential that would help qualify me to write a book in my effort to find my missing daughter, my mother was against it. She didn’t understand. My mother and I were cut from different cloth.

“Why don’t you just get married again – while you’re still young and pretty! — and have more children — before it’s too late! — and put the past BEHIND you?” she stressed. “Your daughter, wherever she is, is probably a spoiled brat who doesn’t give a damn about you. You’re ruining your life – and your looks — over this!”

When at the age of thirty I defied my mother to attend Columbia’s School of General Studies on a full scholarship from the Helena Rubenstein Foundation, my mother stopped speaking to me for quite some time. Ultimately, though, after I graduated with honors in January 1979 and wrote the book I’d hoped to write, which was published by Viking Press in October 1981, and I was sent by Viking on a nationwide book tour, my mother was proud of me. I knew she would be.

 Toward the end of that book, SOMEWHERE CHILD, I wrote about my experience at Columbia in the third person, as though it all happened to someone else:

She loved Columbia the way she loved snow-capped mountains, star-flecked skies, crashing waves, and African sunsets: distantly and reverentially. She thrilled at the old buildings with their marble staircases worn down by countless students’ shoes, the professors with their esoteric specialties and their messianic drive to share their knowledge, her earnest classmates discussing the protagonists of novels the way doctors might discuss their best cases.          

 But in most of her classes, she felt ill-equipped and overawed, scrambling to keep up with the lectures, trying to take careful notes, straining to make sense of it all. Often, she felt as if she were an interloper, a gate-crasher at a highbrow cocktail party.

It was only in her creative writing classes that she felt she belonged. There, sitting in dimly lit classrooms at conference tables where they offered up their lives like sacraments on platters of white bond, she and her classmates were comrades, bound by the same neurotic need to write. 

 And there she was a scientist performing experiments on herself, trying to find the true origin of her problem and the cure for her pain. Why had her life turned out this way? Where had she gone wrong? She probed and examined her past as if it were lying in a petri dish, and then she reported her findings in the form of true stories.

Looking back now, I must say that deciding to attend Columbia University was one of the best life decisions I’ve ever made. It was there that I learned how to stretch my mind as I never otherwise would have, and I learned that I had a voice and a responsibility to use it for good. I was no longer Pretty Little Miss Nobody from Nowheresville, New Jersey, whose highest calling was decorative. I learned I had a good brain, and, as a thinking, caring person, I had value. Columbia forever altered my life’s tragectory, and I will be eternally grateful.

But now, today, as I read and watch the news of the current turmoil on the Columbia campus, my heart aches. As an alumna, I receive email updates from the administration (as if I were a big deal donor, which I’m not), justifying their actions in calling in the police (dressed in riot gear, no less) to quell the students’ Pro-Palestinian demonstrations and encampments, which have sparked similar protests on university campuses all over the country. 

I actually feel sorry for Columbia’s President Shafik; she’s no doubt caught between a rock and a hard place, between Money (the students are demanding that Columbia divest its financial interests in Israel) and Morality (the students are standing up against the Israeli government’s genocide in Gaza). Shafik, I imagine, is a realist and as such she knows that in the United States Money wins nine-tenths of the time. Also, she probably doesn’t want to lose her job.

But my heart is with those Columbia students and the faculty members who support them. I admire their bravery, their willingness to take a stand and speak out and even be arrested for doing so. By any measure, Netanyahu’s ongoing war and the incessant bombing of innocent civilians in Gaza is WRONG, unconscionable, indefenceable. And it is not antisemetic to say so. In fact, a large number of the student demonstrators and faculty participating in these Columbia protests are Jewish, and they make clear that standing up for what is right and moral is in the highest Jewish tradition, which those of us who are non-Jews have always admired.

In my view – and it was at Columbia where I learned, at last, in my early thirties, that my point of view is as valid as anyone’s, and I have a right to express it – the Columbia students have already succeeded mightily in helping to raise awareness all over the U.S., and maybe even the world, of what’s happening in Gaza and how wrong it is. But will their demands for divestment and a total ceasefire win out? If I were young like them and still idealistic and hopeful, I’d say, Yes, maybe they will!

But I’m afraid I know better now. As a Columbia Business School grad once told me flatly, “In the U.S. we adhere to the Golden Rule: He who’s got the gold makes the rules.” Yes, this seems to be the case. At this age and stage, nearing eighty and worldly wise, I fear that Money will win in this struggle too, as it almost always does. And that’s why my heart is breaking.

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30 thoughts on “What I Learned at Columbia”

  1. Thanks for expressing my thoughts, in this and many other of your posts. Thanks for using the word genocide, thanks for acknowledging the role of money. What else could
    motivate this failure to care for civilians? This essay is truth to power and I’m delighted to recognize with admiration your powerful writing.

  2. Great blog, Bonnie.

    I appreciate your honesty, and showing the vulnerability, courage and insights. Your blog inspires me, makes me self reflect on my life journey, and lots of insights in it.

    Take care,


  3. A brilliant piece of writing. I liked being reminded of how you spoke about your experience at Columbia in “Somewhere child” – “ I examined my life as if it was in a Petri dish.” Yes, so did I. I was impressed by how you dealt with a very complex issue. Palestine and protests. I don’t recall anyone going after college presidents when we were protesting Vietnam. What changed, I ask?

    1. Thank you, dear Helaine. You asked, “What changed?” One thing comes to my mind: There were no female college presidents during the Vietnam War.

  4. Thanks for this post, Bonnie. It has been a surreal time on Columbia’s campus, which we are all now locked out of–except for the few who live there. Police are still in heavy attendance in the neighborhood. I’ve always known repressive policing tactics exist, but have never felt them so immediately. Howard Zinn wrote, “They’ll say we’re disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we are disturbing the war.” While money certainly exerts an inordinate amount of force in this (and every) situation, I hope the protests continue to shed light on ever-more nuanced understandings oppression. Thank you for writing into the tension.

    Also, I’m so glad you defied your mother’s wishes. <3

    1. It’s so good to hear from you, dear Ellie, and to get your on-the-ground perspective as a graduate student there. Yes, “disturbing the war” — so true! And war is big business, both for Netanyahu’s Israel and the U.S. Since this war began seven months ago, I’ve felt sickened by it, as many of us have, wishing we could do more to stop it. At least the protesting students have the satisfaction of acting on their wishes.

  5. Dear Bonnie, Thank you for your sensitive and thoughtful writings. I’ve not read this book, but will order it and read it. Abrazos, Karen

  6. I have learned so much both about you and the world by reading your blog…but also about myself. Your thoughtfulness in tackling difficult issues, your perspective, shared by many but expressed by you so clearly, the personal details about your experiences, and the intriguing twist you bring to each post is wonderful. I have read your blog for years but only met you at Elsmarie’s birthday in January. I am so grateful. As Woman’s Day approaches I am thankful for so many strong women in my life and that is often reflected in your blog..both strong women and gratitude. Thank you.

  7. Your perspective on this situation offered so many reasons to feel positive about young people today. They are doing exactly what we older folk did 50 years ago when we protested cuts to public education in Sacramento, CA, and the never-ending war in Vietnam. Thank you for sharing your story, Bonnie. Jean Admire (El Prado, NM)

    1. So good to hear from you, Jean! I hope you are doing well. Yes, come to think of it, the Vietnam protests helped to end that war; perhaps these protests will do the same for Gaza. We can only hope. — Best wishes, BB

  8. La Bonnie, I always enjoy reading and rereading your books and articles. Sharing this articles with my friends. Gracias, amiga, for sharing your wisdom and experiences.

  9. Bonnie! An exquisite post, one of your best.
    And, given your record of passionate power posting, that’s saying a lot.
    I applaud your courage, your years in le Corps de la Paix, and your phenomenal discipline in providing us w/ priceless, professional prose. 
    Re Helaine’s comment: In 1964, my 1st semester at Berkeley, Mario Savio intoned, “… you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears … and you’ve got to make it stop …” The resulting Free Speech Movement set off the 1st campus protests. 
    You’re right: no female college presidents then. And it took 3 years for Gov. Ronald Reagan to dismiss Clark Kerr, the Berkeley chancellor we confronted, for being soft on protestors.
    Given your intellect and erudition, i hope you’ll forgive me: indefensible, antisemitic.
    Warmly, Jerelle  JerelleKraus.com

  10. Thank you, Bonnie, for another interesting blogpost. I am in total agreement and feel the pain for all involved, the Jews, the people of Gaza, the protesting students. With so much suffering, the world seems ever more to be spinning towards a terrible ending. Usually an optimist, I find myself no longer as optimistic about the “goodness” of humanity.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, dear Sher. Yes, the “goodnesss of humanity” seems like such a quaint, old-fashioned concept these days. 🙁

  11. Dear Bon,
    Some people are always determined to put an end to free academic thought whenever such thought is contrary to their own opinions. I congratulate the students whose idealism, fortitude, and commitment refuses to be silenced. Thank you for your passionate reflection on the necessity of free speech.

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