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Columbia University in the City of New York

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Date: Sep 11 2013
Major: English (This Major's Salary over time)
Columbia is a mixed bag; to repeat the classic cliche, it is not for everyone. Like New York, it is large, complex, impersonal, aggressive, and difficult to negotiate at times. And, like New York, it is fascinating, multifaceted, tradition-rich, committed to high standards, and unique.

The administration treats you like dirt, true. The bureaucracy was formidable, and we used to joke that it was a kind of boot camp for what one might encounter later in life. Housing was horrible—I was a transfer and could never get a dormitory room, and had to rent an overpriced studio apartment some eight blocks from the campus. It worked out well enough, except that it made socializing and getting integrated into campus life much more difficult.

Some classes were taught by TA's—though that isn't inevitably a bad thing, for many of these TA's themselves were outstanding young scholars and highly capable. The professors were accessible in varying degrees. I attended two other fairly prestigious colleges before transferring to Columbia, and I did not notice any significant difference in the way classes were taught or their profundity; it took me about the same level of effort to get my usual B+/A- grades.

My favorite instructor at the time was a wonderful Political Science professor named Alan F. Westin, who died just recently. He taught pre-law classes on the Supreme Court and constitutional law, and they were far better than the supposedly more advanced versions I took in law school a couple of years later. Back in 1967, Dr. Westin published

Privacy and Freedom,
which is generally considered the first major book to examine government and corporate collection and (mis)use of personal data. He prefigured today's arguments and remained a cutting-edge authority.

However, I quickly surmised that many of my classmates were extremely, even frighteningly, intelligent. The pointless five-nights-a-week drinking and similar boorishness that plague other campuses was absent. I am sure some students did get plastered, but it was not the dominant paradigm, you might say. That is a major advantage to the most cosmopolitan city in the country. At Columbia, being intellectual, or even having intellectual or unusual or offbeat tastes, doesn't incur the hatred and wrath common at many universities. We actually cheered for the football team to lose! That is also immature in its own way, but Columbia does offer a haven of sorts for people who are somewhat different.

I was definitely in the lower third in terms of intelligence or ability, which doesn't speak ill of my abilities—it's rather like saying Lee Harvey Oswald was a poor shot…in the Marine Corps, meaning that compared to the general population he was still one hell of a rifleman. Equally as important as intelligence, however, is initiative and maturity. New York is not for fools, weaklings, or those needing their hands held. Thus, Columbia appeals to a certain type of highly directed, aggressive, urban (or aspiring to be urban) individual who often has considerable talent and ability but at the same time can be rather unpleasant, overbearing and annoying company. The campus is not exactly beautiful compared to, say, Princeton, but given that it is in Manhattan, on a small hill or rise just west of the Harlem Flats, it is handsome and offers a tolerable amount of open quad space and even a few trees. The facilities are impressive, and the surrounding area wasn't that bad even in the late 1980s—it looked scarier than it actually was, and some of the architecture is magnificent. A tremendous amount of history, culture and activity is packed into Morningside Heights, and I found it inspiring, even if some of my classes were nothing extraordinary. Looking back, I wish I had availed myself of more of what the place can offer. Rightly exploited, one will not only learn a tremendous amount at Columbia, but can forge all kinds of friendships and connections that can be of great value later in life. Due to my own shortcomings, I neglected to do that.
Call me a snob, but I still get a kick out of having a "Baccalaurei in Artibus," a Bachelor of Arts diploma written entirely in Latin. Would I attend again if I had the opportunity? Absolutely.

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