Naked In The Ivy League

For decades, thousands of male and female students at some of America’s most prestigious institutions, in the Ivy League and among the Seven Sisters, were routinely required to strip down and have their nude photos taken.  Why?

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum tells the fascinating story in a long, but riveting, New York Times piece that is almost 20 years old, but new to me.  Rosenbaum himself was a student at Yale who had to undergo the bizarre ritual during the 1960s.  He appeared at a Yale gymnasium, was required to completely disrobe, had metal pins attached to his vertebrae with adhesive, and then was photographed.  Everybody had to have their “posture photos” taken, and students whose posture was deemed unacceptable had to take a remedial posture class where they presumably walked around rooms balancing books on their heads.  Similar photos were taken at schools like Vassar and Wellesley, and urban legends circulated among the Ivy Leaguers about purportedly stolen posture photo collections of young coeds being available on the black market.

But the real story runs deeper than posture and pranks and has a disturbing element.  In reality, the photographs were also part of an anthropological study undertaken to explore theories that contended that study of the human physique, through measurement and analysis of ratios, could reveal intelligence, moral worth, and other characteristics.  It was a branch of eugenics that apparently was scientifically accepted for a time, with its own scientific-sounding names for character components — “ectomorphs” for thin and nervous people, “endomorphs” for the tubby, and “mesomorphs” for the Charles Atlases among us.  Under the theory, each person purportedly had some mixture of the three components that was genetically determined and described by a three-digit code, and those components controlled your character.  The “science” was married to concepts of posture and propriety, accepted by many educational institutions as a progressive, scientific step forward, and the result was thousands of mystified, often humiliated students at elite schools being required to troop before cameras and have their nude photos taken, to be studied by practitioners of a pseudoscience.

The concept that your body shape determines the content of your character seems ludicrous now, as bizarre and unscientific as Nazi “master race” theories, phrenology, or medieval notions that good health required periodic bleedings.  The concept no doubt would have seemed ludicrous to many of the unfortunate students who were forced to shed their clothing — but of course they weren’t told.  They did it because the institution told them to do so and because everyone else did it.  No one questioned authority, and for decades no one at any of those lofty institutions asked whether there was any true scientific basis for the practice or raised any moral or ethical qualms about the “posture photos.”

The students weren’t the only ones exposed by the “posture photos” and their true back story; the schools and the scientific community were as well.  We should all think of “posture photos” the next time an institution tells us to shut up and follow along on a course that seems absurd, that the science is settled and can’t be questioned, and that because everyone else has done it we should, too.

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Getting The Sheepskin

Today we witnessed the Vassar Commencement.  This year is Vassar’s sesquicentennial (i.e., its 150th birthday) and it was a special day for everyone who attended.

At Vassar, the commencements are held outdoors in a beautiful setting.  The stage is set up in a natural amphitheater with the Vassar lake in the background and tall pines framing the stage, and the chairs for the graduates and guests are set up on a gently sloping hillside.  As a result, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house — unless you get stuck behind one of those annoying parents who won’t sit down.

The skies were threatening but the rain, thankfully, held off.  We got to see many Vassar traditions, such as the “Daisy Chain” carried in by Vassar undergrads in white dresses, which has been a commencement staple for decades, and we learned about a number of other traditions in a speech given by Vassar’s president.

In fact, all of the speakers at the commencement did a good job.  There wasn’t a real clinker in the bunch, which means that the Vassar commencement is different from every other commencement I can remember.  The main speaker — Chip Reid of CBS news, himself a Vassar grad and the first male alum to be a commencement speaker — was especially good, and struck exactly the right note with a speech that was encouraging, funny, interesting, and not overlong.  (Great job, Chip!)  And, of course, we got to see Russell cross the stage and get his diploma.

The new graduate and his proud Mom

Commencements are, of course, memorable for the graduates and their parents.  As a parent, I feel great pride and satisfaction about Russell’s accomplishment, and it was a real pleasure to meet his professors and fellow students.  But the emotions felt by parents, I think, pale in comparison to the confusing mix of emotions felt by the graduates.  There is relief at having stayed the course and happiness about your achievement, but also a certain wistfulness at realizing that your friends of the last four years will never again be so close and so close by — and, likely, trepidation about what will happen next.

Because commencements are so charged with emotion, I think the appreciation of the accomplishment may be get lost somewhat, only to be found in coming days when things have settled down.  That’s a good thing, in a way, because graduating from a fine school like Vassar College is an accomplishment to be savored.  Congratulations, Russell!

Russell’s Senior Art Show

Yesterday we went to Russell’s senior art show.  It was held in two floors of a large, empty, decrepit building in a somewhat run-down part of Poughkeepsie, where Russell’s work was displayed along with the work of many other seniors graduating with arts degrees from Vassar.

Although the conditions were not what you might find in a museum, the venue worked because the empty building had plenty of space that allowed each student to place their pieces on bare walls in one or more rooms.  The shabby surroundings — with exposed wires, damaged floors, and cracked windows — gave the place an eclectic feel that was well-suited to the eclectic mix of artwork being shown.  And what a mix it was!  There were paintings, and ink drawings, and pieces made of wax, and pieces made with lights, and toasters, and strings and mirrors, and flimsy chairs chained to the floor.

Russell’s pieces primarily occupied two rooms, although a few of his works were scattered at other locations in the building.  As always, we enjoyed seeing Russell’s works.  One of Russell’s friends mentioned that Russell is good at creating space in his pieces, and I thought that was a really interesting observation.  It also looks, to my uneducated eye, like Russell is experimenting with shapes and working with different kinds of objects that get away from reliance on the standard, rectangular canvas.  One of my favorite pieces, shown above at the top of this post, was totally outside normal canvas-oriented artwork, and the unusual shape really added to the feel the piece created.

There was a good crowd at the event, and we got to meet some of Russell’s professors and friends.  From looking at the show, it seems obvious that the collective Vassar arts community has had a real impact on Russell’s art — and my guess is that the reverse is true, too.

A Final Stay At The Alumnae House

This weekend, as we attend Russell’s graduation, we also will enjoy our final stay (we think) at the Alumnae House at Vassar College.  For the last four years, it has become a home-away-from-home for us whenever we visit the campus.  Kish and I will miss coming here.

The Alumnae House has been around for more than 80 years, and it is one of those interesting, quirky places that you are happy to find and explore. It isn’t so much a hotel as a combination of diverse elements variously found in dormitories, hostels, and homes.  The ground floor features large common rooms, including a kind of living room, a library, and a dining room.  The upper floors include many different types of sleeping rooms that range from larger rooms with double beds to small rooms equipped with a simple single bed, a dresser, and a chair.  You share bathrooms and shower rooms with your fellow guests, and as a result the whole place has a kind of gentle, friendly, communal feel to it.   It’s hard to walk down the stairs of the Alumnae House in the morning without having a smile on your face.

The Alumnae House is an old building and is filled with the kinds of distinct touches that you would expect to find in an old building, like dark hardwood paneling and dark hardwood floors in the library, oil paintings, large fireplaces in the common rooms, tall windows and old-fashioned furnishings.  In the upper floors the hallways to the sleeping quarters are lined with black-and-white photos of stern-faced women and female Vassar students of days gone by playing sports in improbable outfits that had to hinder athletic performance.  The sleeping room areas include push-button light switches, wall sconce lamps, and glass doorknobs.  It all reminds me of my grandmother’s old house in Akron, Ohio.

For a parent, the visits to campus become a big part of your view of your child’s college experience.  The Alumnae House has always made our visits to Vassar more memorable.

Vassar Reflections

On Sunday, Russell will receive his diploma from Vassar College.  I’m sure every parent of a graduating college student says this — but it is hard to believe that it has been four years since we first drove to the Vassar campus and, on an excruciatingly hot day, moved Russell and all of his stuff into a cramped room on one of the upper floors of Main, the oldest building on campus.

Whenever a child picks a college and then starts school, the parent holds his breath.  Will it be what he expected?  Will he make friends?  Will he get a good education?  Most importantly, will he be happy?  Or, will you get the dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call from the weeping child who says they hate the school and just want to come home?

By all of these standards, I think Vassar has been a good choice for our son.  Russell has been happy there.  He seems to have received a solid liberal arts education that has challenged him intellectually.  He has enjoyed the arts curriculum at Vassar.  His range and, I think, his confidence as an artist has grown.  He has made many good friends who hail from every corner of the country.  He learned how to play rugby and traveled with the team to Ireland.  He received an award that allowed him to spend a memorable, sweaty summer traveling throughout Vietnam and creating art in the midst of the Vietnamese people.  He participated in a number of art shows and got to organize the Vassar contribution to the Masters on Main Street exhibit.

And, when he receives his sheepskin on Sunday, he will have completed his schooling in four years and be ready to move out into the world.  It is hard to believe that that day has come so soon — but it will be an occasion worth celebrating.

Russell And The Masters On Main Street (Cont.)

A web album of photos of the pieces of Vassar students who are participating in the Masters on Main Street exhibition in Catskill, New York is now available on-line.  It is a diverse mix of paintings, photography, sculpture and drawings and can be seen here.  The web album includes five pieces by Russell from the show, including the one pictured above.

Fortunately, the Masters on Main Street exhibition runs until the end of May, so Kish and I will be able to see all of the pieces when we go to Vassar for Russell’s graduation.

Russell And The Masters On Main Street

Today Russell will be part of a new show opening up in Catskill, New York.  Catskill is a scenic town located along the Hudson River, north of Poughkeepsie.

The show is part of an effort by the Catskill Arts Initiative to fill the empty storefronts along Catskill’s quaint Main Street with art.  The project is called “Masters On Main Street” and will feature participants from Vassar College, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bard College, the School of Visual Arts, and SUNY New Paltz.  Their work will appear in space donated by owners of the Main Street buildings.  According to the Catskill Storefront Arts Project website, Russell will be heading up a group show of 20 Vassar College artists, whose pieces will be displayed at 396 Main Street.  A piece in the Vassar Miscellany News, which features some quotes from Russell, is here.

Filling vacant storefronts with art sounds like a good way to increase interest in a struggling downtown area.  Congratulations to Russell for his hard work on the project, and good luck to the Catskill Arts Initiative as it works to revitalize a charming area that has been hard hit by our struggling economy.

Phase One of the project, including the collective Vassar College show, will run until May 31, 2011.