In the 1970s, William Zinsser, a teacher and musician and writer— and the author of “On Writing Well” which has sold over a million copies— served as the master of Branford College at Yale. Zinsser later wrote in “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past” that “being a college master was the perfect cure for the loneliness of the freelance writer.” “Like any pastoral job,” he wrote, “it consisted of small personal encounters from morning to night.”
It was during those years at Yale that Zinsser wrote a much anthologized essay titled “College Pressures,” which described four different types of pressures that “were turning Yale undergraduates into workaholics obsessed with high grades.” According to Zinsser, “One was parental pressure to succeed, often in subjects that would prepare them for careers in medicine or law that they really didn’t want to enter. Another was financial pressure: the need to pay back all those student loans. The third was peer pressure—the belief that their fellow students were getting higher grades—and the fourth, worst of all, was self-imposed pressure.”
Zinsser’s advice to his students is sound counsel for all college students. He assured his students that “there is no one `right’ way to get ahead — that each of them is a different person, starting from a different point and bound for a different destination.” Zinsser told his students that despite the insistence of parents and friends “change is a tonic and that all the slots are not codified or the frontiers closed.” Each Wednesday afternoon, Zinsser held a “Master’s Tea” in the college, to which he invited men and women the students “might not otherwise meet,” individuals “who have achieved success outside the academic world.” These guests were “a mixed bag of achievers,” the “heads of businesses and ad agencies, editors of magazines, politicians, public officials, television producers, Broadway producers, filmmakers, artists, writers, musicians, photographers, scientists, historians.” Zinsser asked these achievers to tell a little bit about how they “got their start” in their various callings.
According to Zinsser, “the students assume that they started in their present field and knew all along that it was what they wanted to do.” To the students surprise, however, the guest speakers, more often than not, came to their present position of achievement by “a circuitous route,” and only “after many detours.”
There were many bumps in the road along the way. Zinsser wrote that upon learning this, “the students were startled.” They could “hardly conceive of a career that was not preplanned.” To Zinsser’s own surprise and consternation, “they can hardly imagine allowing the hand of God or chance to nudge them down some unforeseen trail.”
Zinsser is now concerned that his essay “College Pressures” continues to be anthologized and reprinted. Although he regrets that the article is “as pertinent today as it was 25 years ago,” he realizes that “in fact, it’s more pertinent.” Students still find themselves under enormous pressure to perform and succeed, and the ambition of students is often ambition manufactured by parents or friends, and not of their own choosing. Zinsser was a caring residential college master in the 1970s and he continues to care about students today.
“What I want for all young people,” he writes, “is a release from the clammy grip of the future. I’d like them to savor each step of their education as a rich experience in itself, not as a preparation for the next step.” I wish this release for my students at Murray State and for my own children as well, at Centre and Yale, and for students everywhere. Is that asking too much — “a release from the clammy grip of the future”?
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. Contact him at JBolin@murraystate.edu.