Seeking new worlds in our sunset years

Seeking new worlds in our sunset years

One of my favorite authors is sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein. Readers of my generation remember him from works like Starship Troopers, Green Hills of Earth, and the generation-defining Stranger in a Strange Land, which contained the phrase “I grok” (“I understand/comprehend” is a close approximation.), a Martian codeword that entered the 1960s vocabulary.

Heinlein had a series of books with repeating characters. The most notable was Lazarus Long (ne Woodrow Wilson Smith), humanity’s longest-living (well over 2,000-year-old) man. The last book of the Lazarus Long cycle, and the last book Heinlein published, was To Sail Beyond The Sunset, in which Heinlein tries to harmonize all the literary characters he created.

The title comes from the beautiful Alfred Lloyd Tennyson poem “Ulysses,” in which Ulysses, or Odysseus, at the end of his days contemplates his life and the future he desires. The full closing verses resonated with me 40 years ago when I first read Heinlein’s work, and still do:

Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses, recognizing that he is no longer at his physical prime, is not willing to give up making discoveries in his later years and hopes to reunite with old friends and reminisce on former glories.

This week I had my “Ulysses moment”: my 50th class reunion. I graduated in 1963, at the tender age of 20, from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, abbreviated SEAS. I am now a “Golden Lion” and have the lapel pin to prove it.

The Class of ’63E has a unique history. It was the first four-year engineering class at Columbia since 1914. Prior to our class, undergraduate engineering classes were formed in the junior year from students who spent their first two years in Columbia College or in the “3-2 program” where students spent three years in either the college or other colleges in the Combined Plan, allowing them to get BA and BS degrees one year apart.

We were a small class, barely over 100 (all men, save four women). We were not very diverse, the majority coming from the New York metro area. Importantly, we were smart.

We were not welcome on campus. The campus newspaper, Spectator, did a series claiming we were a threat to the college’s tradition of liberal (in the classic sense) education. However, we went through the same first two-year program that any college science student would. The exception was, where the average college student program was 15-17 semester hours, the average engineering student took 17-19 semester hours.

In our first two years, we took two semesters of English, four semesters of math, five semesters of chemistry and physics, and significantly, Columbia’s rightfully vaunted core curriculum, consisting of two semesters of contemporary Western civilization and three semesters of humanities. These were survey courses in philosophy, religion, economics, and great literature that form the foundation of Western civilization. We studied everything from the New and Old Testaments, to Homer, to Marx.

As I grew older, such classical training became more important to me. I still reach back to memories of class discussions when I want to make a philosophical point or use a quote to illustrate an idea. I lament that such education, which emphasizes the commonality of our civilization has, in modern times, given way to mandatory diversity training which emphasizes differences. I wish my children had this as part of their college education.

Last weekend, approximately 30 Golden Lions of ’63E, 35 percent of our surviving class, returned to alma mater. At 70, I am one of the “babies” of the group. Some came with their wives of 50 years, having married upon graduation. Some were grey; some were bald; some needed assistance to walk; some had difficulty with recollection. Many put on a few pounds.

For four days, my college companions gathered to reminisce about classmates, professors, and deans who passed on and their influence on our lives, while sharing common and individual experiences, some very comical. We caught up on our families, with how our careers progressed, and, with many in retirement, where people are living and what they are doing with their leisure time.

At the end, we raised a glass to our 55th reunion.

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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