SLC in 1968: An Pioneering Man’s Perspective

I met Bob Lamm at an on-campus improvisation class in late February of this year. He is an excitable and sincere man, who has worked as an improv teacher for over ten years now. As a graduate from Yale University in 1969, Bob’s talents range much farther than teaching improv classes. I met with him again to discuss his time in college in the late 1960s and the semester he spent at Sarah Lawrence as one of six men who were the guinea pigs of the college’s “coeducational experiment.”

Bob’s resume includes publishing many articles ranging from political pieces to personal essays to reviews in more than fifty outlets—including The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Publishers Weekly. For seventeen years, Bob was also the co-author of a college sociology textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He has taught every level of education, from elementary to middle to high school to college, and is currently teaching a course at NYU. Needless to say, Bob’s B.A. in Political Science, energetic personality, and unique curiosity for learning new activities and talents have taken him across many different professional and social fields.

Interestingly, it is not Yale University that Bob accredits with his unique interest in just about everything. In Bob’s words, his teaching, activism, and writing was and still is greatly encouraged by his semester “abroad” at Sarah Lawrence in the spring of 1968.

At that time, SLC was on its way to becoming coeducational. Out of the 550 female students who were currently studying at the College, 400 of them lived on campus. Ilja Wachs was teaching a course on utopian literature (of course) and what is now the Bates Faculty Dining Hall was the College’s only basketball court and, well, the only gym on campus. Mount Vernon (Bob’s hometown) was experiencing brutal school integration battles as the human rights revolution began to gain speed within the local political and social environments.

For Bob, his time at Yale—an all-male school until 1969—was marred by “aspiring Politico-s like… John Kerry and George Pataki and others that [he] saw in action.” He describes his decision to break free from such an environment by applying to Sarah Lawrence after a friend of his, Robert Fein, did the same as the first male student at the College in the Fall of 1967:

“[Yale] was really awful. And so on my first day back for junior year, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I hate it here…. So right on the heels of that, of deciding, ‘Oh my god, I really hate it here’, I already had plans to come to Sarah Lawrence to visit my friend. So I came here and it was a gorgeous day… there was a barbeque, [and] I was coming from an all-male school. There were tons of women who I thought were incredibly beautiful and incredibly interesting. Some of them were crazy but I didn’t know that at the time…. [T]he women that I met at Sarah Lawrence the first day and after that were so bold and daring and they had been everywhere and done everything and they said all sorts of things that just shocked the hell out of me.”

After his first visit, Bob gladly decided to apply for a semester at Sarah Lawrence. What ensued was a hellish experience we can probably all relate to: he submitted an application and sixteen hand-written essays (remember this was the 1960s, there were no computers or save options), only to have the Admissions Office notify him the day before the decisions would be announced that they had lost his entire file: he might as well give the whole thing up. Bob raced around Yale trying to get all of his essays rewritten, recommendations resubmitted, and another application filled out in time to still be considered. At this time, the draft was in effect and if Sarah Lawrence refused to accept him, he would have had to go back to Yale in order to avoid being called to war.

After Bob pieced together another application, the Admissions Office called him to tell him his file had been found and he would still be considered for enrollment. Luckily, Bob received his acceptance and started at Sarah Lawrence that spring.

While talking with Bob, I was impressed by his deep admiration for the women he met during his time at Sarah Lawrence and how absolutely astonished he was by them. He describes one woman he met that was a drummer:

“…there was a mixer because they had to bus in guys, a mixer from Columbia and Princeton, and we’re walking down the hill. I had just met her and she told me she played the drums. Well, in 1968, women didn’t play the drums, period. I had never heard of a woman who played the drums, and I didn’t know whether to believe her. We got down to the mixer, and I saw her go and start talking to the guys in the band. I went and talked to some other people and after a while I looked up and there she was playing the drums! And I met another woman who wanted to be a forest ranger. Women weren’t forest rangers in 1968. Just things like that kept happening, and right away I sensed ‘Wow, this is really different!’”

 

I asked him about what 1968 at Sarah Lawrence really looked like, in terms of the social and political context of the time. Bob explained that while these women were extraordinary in their adventures as drummers and their dreams to become forest rangers, their academic lives were quite private in comparison to their social lives. Bob was struck by the way Sarah Lawrence enabled him to see alternatives to the theory of education Yale offered him. To this day, Bob still employs SLC pedagogy in his teaching. He agrees that Sarah Lawrence is a wonderful place educationally if you are a disciplined student and can throw yourself into your passions.

After talking to Bob, I wanted to know what we, as Sarah Lawrence students today, could learn from Bob’s experience– not only as one of six men among 550 college-educated women but also as someone who comes from a similar educational background and has been outside of our Sarah Lawrence bubble for more than fifty years. As a graduating senior in the midst of completing my last conference papers and final projects, I wanted to know all of his secrets. Bob’s best advice came unexpectedly when we were discussing how people can be easily pushed into making decisions just for the sake of making them:

 

“There’s a feeling sometimes when making decisions when you’re in your twenties that once I choose this road, it’s set in stone and the concrete solidifies and that’s that and all these other choices are really closed off…. It’s the wrong way to look at it. I think the right way to look at it is: I’m going to make the best choices I can right now and if they prove to be great choices for the rest of my life, fine, and if they don’t then I’m going to make other choices.”

Bob’s words coincide with our Sarah Lawrence education. This school teaches us to follow the paths we are passionate about, even if they are absolutely crazy and incredibly challenging. I have learned through my relationships with my professors and peers that there are people who will support you through that craziness, no matter how far you decide to let yourself dive. Bob’s encounter with the daring and adventurous women who attended Sarah Lawrence in the late 1960s is not far from the description current students (including the male ones) receive today. Bob’s account is a reminder that while Sarah Lawrence may experience a multitude of changes over the years, its educational worth and outstanding student talent is a force to be reckoned with.

If you’re interested in hearing the entire interview, listen below:

Melinda Quick spent the first eighteen years of her life in Boise, Idaho, but now she's moved on to the big city. She loves red gerber daisies in the spring, driving in cars with the music turned way-way up, and buying dinner for her friends (when she has the cash). After graduation, Melinda plans on living in NYC while working at Penguin Group and developing her documentary on the laughter. Follow her on twitter @melindaanneq.

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