By Donald Wright
I went to DePauw University because I thought it was cool. In ninth grade a friend’s parents, whose older son attended, took me to Parents Weekend—brilliant fall day, leaves turning, students throwing Frisbees, trim-ankled women displaying perfect teeth. I thought, “This is the place for me!” That was pretty much how it worked.
Most others attended DePauw for better-thought-out reasons. The school had a reputation for producing business leaders. Many majored in economics and, during their senior year, juggled job offers from big corporations.
My older brother had suggested I start with an English major because, he said, “Lots of babes take English classes,” but I soon realized that these courses required more reading than my intended approach called for. Then, during spring break, hoping I would find my calling in corporate management, my Dad arranged for me to meet with a guy in charge of a local manufacturing operation. Dressed in a navy suit and seated behind a desk larger than our family’s dining-room table, the man spoke of a lifestyle I wasn’t familiar with. Better still, he held out a job for me on graduation. “You show me A’s in economics from DePauw,” he told me, “and I’ll show you a path toward a nice career.” Having little else going, I returned to school, intent on starting my economics major.
Already I had heard the accepted wisdom: “Take Editha for ECON 101!” Editha Hadcock was a matronly professor whose professional contribution was a 1931 study of labor conditions in Rhode Island cotton mills, but among DePauw students, in 1963, she was known as the easiest “A” on campus. So, no fool, I signed up for Editha’s Intro. course and went home to spend summer days digging up city streets and nights hanging out with a high-school junior who had nice legs and an alluring gap between her incisors.
When I returned to school in the fall, news wasn’t good. Over the summer, Editha had died. No one knew how or why. A few days before classes began, administrators had arranged for a former professor from Purdue to teach Editha’s classes. “This could be a setback,” a wise upperclassman allowed.
The new professor, quickly known to all as “Monty,” was a strange human. He wore a green suit with a narrow tie encircling his thin neck, thick glasses, and cheap shoes. His ears stood out and his lips got in the way of his forming words. Worst of all, he could not make sense of the simplest concepts. After the first day of class, a friend said, “We’re going to have to know the textbook cold to get through this baby.” Relying on the textbook rather than lecture materials had been a tactic I’d used before, in a psychology class where lectures were worthless. I’d only ended up with a C, but that was because I’d waited until the night before the exam to read 600 pages and had dozed off between chapters on the id and the ego. This time I’d plan more carefully.
Economics textbooks are notoriously expensive, so I was happy to find a used copy, $10 rather than $30. I snapped it up and headed back to the fraternity for lunch and frivolity.
Monty’s classes turned out to be as bad as feared. In the middle of one, when everyone was particularly lost, a feisty woman simply got up, said, “I’ve had all I can take,” and walked out. Monty blathered on, unfazed.
When mid-term approached, Monty announced our first exam, to cover “all lectures and Chapter Ten in your textbook.” So I spent hours slowly reading Chapter Ten on The Federal Reserve System. I ended up understanding it from its board of governors down to its latest discount rate.
In the exam, Monty handed out a thick, stapled package of paper: ten multiple-choice questions, each a page long and so complex that it was hopeless to spend time reading carefully. Each had four responses to choose from, and I couldn’t make sense out of those, either. I circled a random ten responses, handed in my exam, and walked home in more of a daze than usual.
Back in my fraternity, my friends in the class gathered to talk. “Man,” said one, “those questions on the GNP were a bitch, weren’t they?”
GNP?” I asked.
“Yeah, Chapter Ten, GNP,” one said.
I asked to see his textbook. Sure enough, Chapter Ten in the new edition was “The Gross National Product.” I showed him mine, “The Federal Reserve System.”
“Wo, bad luck, man,” my friend said. “Better go tell Monty.”
Well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to go tell Monty. I didn’t talk to professors, especially not this one. So I damned the luck, realized my career in corporate management was doomed, and wondered how quickly I might get drafted if I flunked out.
At the next class meeting, Monty handed back the exams. “Class,” he said (best as we could understand), “I have been giving examinations like this for a long time, and this is the first time a person has ever received a perfect score. “Mr. Wright, would you please rise and be recognized?”
I wobbled to my feet, dumbfounded. A few students made weak clapping sounds, but I could see justifiable looks of anger. I sat back down and vowed not to tell others my used-textbook saga.
Better still, after class, Monty asked to speak privately and told me that he was exempting me from exams through the rest of the semester. I would get an “A” in Economics 101. He shook my hand and I dashed off
I took all of this as a sign from heaven that economics was not for me. I ended up majoring in history, pulling more B’s than A’s, but doing well enough to get into graduate school. Once there, when I was needing to fulfill an African Studies minor, my advisor told me, “Don’t miss Sara Berry’s ‘African Economics’ course. She’s huge in the field, it will look good on your record, and understanding African economies is essential.”
“Fat chance!” I said to myself, and enrolled in “African Political Systems.” It wasn’t a good class, but I got through it and moved on.