Letters to the Editor

Why geeks need college; in defense of the Beats; McDougal is no martyr.

Published April 16, 1999 5:11PM (EDT)

Do geeks need to go to college?



Should geeks go to college? Probably. But not because they'll do better work later in life (who can
prove this?) or because it will help them get a job (maybe -- or not).

Geeks should go to college to learn about things other than computers. It's
hard to learn about real history or philosophy if you're not in college.
Sure, you learn some history facts, and maybe read a snippet of Plato in high
school, but it ain't the same at all.

Shoot, the raw college experience beats what you'll ever get in the working

At least give it a try.

-- Mike Stephens

Santa Cruz, Calif.

I find the subject of the article to be both relevant and ironic. For
decades, many liberal arts students have graduated from college despite
having taken essentially no mathematics or science courses. Most give up in
frustration when confronted with the need to make decisions involving
complex technological issues. I suggest that these graduates are not as
"broadly" educated as they themselves think. On the other hand, my son is
seriously considering attending a school whose curriculum comprises
mathematics, physics and computer science -- and nothing else. Not "not much
else" -- nothing else. I think your author raises important issues that are
not new, and that we need to consider as a society.

She also raises another important point: In today's society, everybody must
continue to learn -- new skills, new concepts, new technologies. People who
can't adapt to our rapid pace of technological change will be relegated to
the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. It will be a real challenge for
us to address these issues in the near future.

-- Bob Kimble

This debate is really the age-old question of the value of an
education. We don't go to college to learn "a trade"; we go to college
to learn how to learn. College also broadens our awareness of the
world, it teaches us how to communicate, and it teaches us how to
complete long, difficult projects.

I hate to generalize, but among the college dropouts that I have worked
with, old and young, most were bright people, most mastered the
mechanics of their jobs, but few had the intellectual maturity and
discipline to lead and innovate. Conversely, many of my most valuable
co-workers had college degrees outside of software-related disciplines.

It's easy to be wooed by managers who are desperate for talent, any
talent. Take the long view. Go to college. Pack a lot of
life-expanding experience into those formative years. You will be a
better human being, and you will be a better software developer.

-- Dean Wampler

Bellevue, Wash.

After a couple of years
of college, I entered the workplace in 1991, working on a small community
newspaper. My advancement can be directly tied to my ability to
problem-solve, and the high-tech industry is in dire need of individuals
who can do that quickly. I almost credit how far I have gotten to the two-year head start I gained by not completing my degree.

While college may teach you some of the skills to evaluate a situation
and come up with a solution, I have found that higher education does not
guarantee this skill. In fact, some of the people I respect the most for
their ability don't have, or need, a piece of paper to prove it.

-- Patrick Neeman

Breaking up with the Beats

Rather than successfully diminishing the Beat genre in American literature,
David Gates, perhaps unwittingly, points out what's really wrong with the literary
scene today. That scene -- and by extrapolation, what we are "allowed" to read
and admire -- is governed by an enmeshed collective composed of academia,
publishers and literary critics. The collective determines what is acceptable
and correct (translation: what will sell). What it cannot fit into its
arbitrary criteria, it must abandon.

Obviously, Gates got religion somewhere between his love affair with
Burroughs and Kerouac and his own publishing success story. Warily, he
cautions writers against aspiring to write "like" the Beats, or they won't
"have their work taken seriously by whatever's left of the literary
establishment. A 21-year-old applying to a writing program is ... ill-advised to
cite Jack Kerouac." In David Gates' definition, academic acceptance appears
to be the pinnacle of artistic validation. Alas, in reality, academic writing
programs produce very few "writers"; their true function is to train
successors to run more academic writing programs.

I suspect Gates is telling the tale of his own journey when he declares that
the Beat "ideology of endless possibility paradoxically limited their
literary options." What options? Money? Fame? Success, American style? The
ticky-tacky house in the suburbs, conforming to common folkways, is what
truly limits the options of any artist. Gates paints the Beats as some kind
of rigid subset of phoniness, claiming that "their various theories,
manifestos and obiter dicta tended to discourage the rigorous self-scrutiny
that enables a writer to reach the truest, weirdest, innermost vision." To
suggest that Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs failed to convey some of the
truest and most important innermost visions of the 20th century may be the
most stupefyingly implausible of all the rationales Gates clutches at.

Certainly, if one's mind is occupied by the ghost of William S. Burroughs
while one's body is contained in a cubicle, cranking out disposable words to
fit the glossy agenda of a slick weekly newsrag, yeah, there's going to be a
lot of conflict. You don't want the anti-Establishment in your head while
you're at the office. You might find yourself suddenly possessed by that "rigorous self-scrutiny." True, weird, innermost visions don't sell as books or
feature stories.

David Gates is an expatriate of expatriates, a guy whose desires and passions
were never commensurate with his ability to express them. He understands the
Beats as if their words were tattooed on his soul. But like a modern-day
Winston Smith, who knows it's easier to leave a lover behind than it is to
get on Big Brother's bad side, he needs to convince us he's not in love.

Gates can't afford to embrace this wrong-side-of-the-tracks relationship
until mainstream America does. For now, but maybe not forever, he'll be
sticking to the road well-traveled.

-- Diane De Rooy

Gates writes, "A 21-year-old applying to a writing program is as ill-advised to cite
Jack Kerouac as an influence as O. Henry or H.P. Lovecraft."

Quite right too. Means they don't get it. No self-respecting
school would want someone so confused; no self-respecting
child of the Beats would want the school.

-- Pete Shanks

I find a lot to dispute in David Gates' piece about the Beats. First
of all, Podhoretz's old essay may be interesting today as a document, but
its argument remains poor and dishonest. It was really a part of that
ambitious mediocrity's program of self-promotion. Ginsberg and company were
under aggressive attack by the quality-lit mafia of the day, and Podhoretz
got his licks in good and strong so that he'd get noticed and patted on the

In recent years, the Beat writers have become convenient scapegoats
for the likes of Podhoretz and William Bennett, precisely because of the
claim, sometimes made by the major Beats themselves, that they had somehow
created the Beat subculture themselves, which developed into the '60s hippie
counterculture and into further, still burgeoning mutations.

But did they? In his noted study "Hustlers, Beats, and Others,"
sociologist Ned Polsky argues strongly that the Beat phenomenon in late '50s
Greenwich Village existed entirely apart from the work of the Beat writers,
and states that many Beats whom he interviewed rejected the notion that
those writers were their leaders. Could it be, despite Burroughs' quoted contention, that
rather than Woodstock coming out of Kerouac's knapsack, that Kerouac came
out of the same knapsack that later brought forth Woodstock?

A fair judgment of any writer must be an assessment of the value of
his finished work, not of the methods by which it was achieved. The
techniques that Gates finds a dangerous temptation to young writers, in
the hands of Burroughs and Kerouac, brought results that should be envied by
a lot of second- and third-rate devotees of "le mot juste."

Finally, the notion that the Beats were anti-literate and despised
classics is refuted by a basic familiarity with their work. That's a line
promoted by Podhoretz and his ilk, whose scapegoating of the Beats is
politically motivated and a veiled argument in favor of censorship. I don't
really doubt Gates' old admiration for these writers, but I wonder if he's
read them much lately. I also wonder if he fully recognizes who and what he's
curling up with in making his rather smug case against them.

-- Walter Risley

Columbus, Ohio

"Joan of Arkansas" defeats Kenneth Starr


What a tin ear you have for history! Big play for the
McDougal partial-acquittal story, but only the bare
mention of Clinton's contempt citation? The simple directness of Judge
Wright's written decision will, completely unadorned, serve long and
well as an inescapable bottom-line on this president: tacky,
superficial and viscerally dishonest. How glad I'll be when he's
finally gone and I can stop being embarrassed for so many of my friends
who, like pod people, carry his water. Susan McDougal a hero, a martyr?
How hard up can we get?

-- Neal Warth

Ventura, Calif.

Roy Black


I am always bothered by the attitude of the lawyers like Black, who, when
expounding on their versions of justice, use words like "interesting
case" and "prosecutorial advantages." To too many lawyers
(prosecutors included), the actual guilt or innocence of the accused seems to be of
little or no consequence. I heartily endorse a vigorous, competent defense, but I get the impression that their idea of a fair trial is
one in which their client has a 50/50 chance of getting off, guilty or not.
What is wrong with having a trial to
determine whether a defendant is guilty or not? Of course, some of those talking TV heads might suffer a reduction
in their income, but I certainly think society as a whole would benefit.

-- Don Walker

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