Discuss the themes in "University Days" by James Thurber.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Thurber ranks among the great American humorists.  In his essay “University Days,” Thurber shares the experiences that led to his unfinished degree at Ohio State University.  Although Thurber passed all of this classes but one, that class deterred him from finishing his studies.  Admirably, Thurber is unafraid to laugh at himself and to share his frustrations as well.

Thematically, Thurber points to the lack of personalization of the instruction in some of his classes.  Thurber suffered from vision problems throughout his life.  He was almost blind without his glasses.  In more than one class, the university setting failed to adjust the curriculum to help a student who passed all of his other classes.  This was apparent particularly in his dreaded botany class.  Forced to take the class twice without passing either time, Thurber was unable to see in the microscope with his thick lensed glasses.  Without ever actually indicting the school, Thurber obviously feels denied a fair playing field with his vision problem.

This gymnasium class experience furthers the theme of depersonalization in the university.  Again, forced to go without his glasses, it is amazing that he or someone else was not hurt because of his inability to see.    

They wouldn’t let you play games or join in the exercises with your glasses on and I couldn’t see with mine off. I bumped into professors, horizontal bars, agricultural students, and swinging iron rings. Not being able to see, I could take it but I couldn’t dish it out.

The assembly line approach to the swimming class with numbers and no names created the opportunity for the  clever Thurber to beat the system. He had another student swim for him since he did not like swimming and detested the instructor.   

His second theme points to Thurber determining early on that compulsory classes have little to do with genuine curiosity or sense of the beauty of learning. In his stipulated or required classes for graduation, Thurber found little to connect to his personal education.  Thurber was in good company. There were other indifferent or bewildered students; many of whom left the university without completing a degree.

Another theme circulating through his anecdotes emphasizes Thurber’s distaste for authority which is revealed in his conflict with his botany instructor, who forces him to examine flowers in a way that Thurber feels “takes away from the beauty.”  Similarly in gym class, Thurber is repeatedly forced to do unpleasant things:

‘They made you strip the day you registered. It is impossible for me to be happy when I am stripped and being asked a lot of questions.’

Thurber’s wry wit points out a ridiculous notion that one agriculture student had in choosing to take one of Thurber's beloved journalism classes. Apparently  his idea was that if farming did not work out for him, then he could fall back on being a reporter.  Soon the farmer student realized that reporting on cow disease did not meet everyone’s reading pleasure.

Without much advisory assistance and faced with little individualization, Thurber opts to say “goodbye” to his university days. Thus, one of the great humorists and cartoonist begins his life and career.