Going to School, Years Ago

Posted on January 22, 2022


What was it like going to school a half century ago? Or maybe a century ago? My brother graduated from Georgia Tech seventy years ago in 1952. And for you all who like ancient history, my grandfather was born before the Civil War. I mentioned that to some undergraduate students a few years ago and I think they figured my grandfather must have served with Julius Caesar in the conquest of Gaul which I had recently mentioned.

I don’t know how much time college students spend studying these days. I looked up the data on the web and one figure is about 2.65 hours per week. The highest I found was about 1.4 hours daily. I know they spend about eight or nine hours daily on their cell phones. Students are simply not particularly devoted to learning today. So, what was it like almost a century ago?

Below I excerpted a bit from a memoir my brother Bill wrote for his children. Here are some snippets.

Bill was born in 1931 on a sugar plantation in northern Peru. He just turned 90 this year and is doing well, thank you. The family eventually moved to the capital, Lima, and “by August of 1946, then 15 years old, it was decided that as I was starting to grow up and it was time that I attend school permanently in the USA and become an “American.”

“My Aunt Faith, a sister of my father (William Harold Clayton, born 1900 in South Carolina), had heard of a prep school that some distant kin had attended and recommended that I enroll at Darlington School in Rome, Georgia.” It’s still there by the way.

“So, in September 1946, while my family remained in Peru, I boarded a freighter bound for New York. This was the last time I lived at home except for holidays. …the trip took 6 weeks as we had to spend a month in Panama to repair the ship’s boiler.”

“We arrived in New York and…I took a train to Atlanta, then a bus to Rome and finally a cab to the front gate of “Darlington School for Boys.”

“I was well treated and had excellent teachers who guided me through those years. I was taught how to study, which put me in good stead for later years. We were restricted to our rooms from 6 to 10 p.m. to studyand had a full agenda of sports to keep us on the go. We all had to work in the kitchen one day a week, and one weekend a month in the yards and grounds. I can still remember the smell and taste of wild onions in our milk which came from our own dairy.”

“I graduated cum laude, in the spring of 1948, and went to Davidson College, a small (800 white males then) liberal arts school supported by the Presbyterian Church located outside of Charlotte, N. C. It was well thought of academically.”

“After two years at Darlington my first year of college was a snap. Davidson required attending chapel every day…[and] somewhere along the way, I started to think about what I would do someday and decided that nothing much could be done with a liberal arts degree; so, I settled on transferring to The Georgia Institute of Technology.”

“I enrolled at Ga. Tech in the fall of 1949. Tuition & board was $500 per quarter for out of state students. I quickly found out that Tech was not as easy as the previous schools; however, my study habits stood me in good stead, which was good, as there was little institutional push to make one study.”

“As a matter of fact, only about 25% of freshman class graduated. It was a big change going from a more or less controlled environment to a big city school where you were left on your own to sink or swim. My first year went by very quickly, trying to keep my head above water. In those days there were no coeds or integration” but it wasn’t all work. “Most of our dates were with Agnes Scott girls or local secretaries that lived around the campus.”

“Basically. going to Tech was a continual grind to keep up with the grades, lab work and general homework. We probably averaged 4-5 hours a day on homework. However, a technical degree taught you self-discipline, a habit that stood me in good stead in the days to come.”

A few years later, in September 1960, I found myself at a freshman convocation at Duke. The dean told us to look to our left and right of us. Only “one of you will graduate.” Since I had an aisle seat, and the guy on my right side flunked out freshman year, I figured I had it made.

But humor aside, read my brother’s excerpts above. To get along “you were left on your own to sink or swim.” Not today’s college students, pampered, guarded carefully by caring administrators of Divisions of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the recipients of favors and advancements on account of their race, color, gender, or other status, prepared for what? The real world? Another whole story.

Published as “What was it like going to school half a century ago?” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan. 23, 2022