What is the significance of the Bolenciecwez incident in "University Days" by James Thurber?
I would like to understand the Bolenciecwez incident in detail and also how Thurber uses this incident to mock the education system prevalent during his own time in college.
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In the “University Days” chapter from his autobiographical work My Life and Hard Times, James Thurber describes a fellow student named Bolenciecwez, who would come directly from a physics class to a class in economics in which Thurber was also enrolled. Thurber notes that Bolenciecwez
was a tackle on the football team. . . . At that time Ohio State University had one of the best football teams in the country, and Bolenciecwez was one of its outstanding stars. In order to be eligible to play it was necessary for him to keep up in his studies, a very difficult matter, for while he was not dumber than an ox he was not any smarter.
His professors tried to help Bolenciecwez pass their classes, and this was especially true of the economics professor, who asked him ridiculously easy questions. Students also tried to give Bolenciecwez very obvious hints about correct answers.
In relating the Bolenciecwez episode, Thurber implies a number of points about American higher education at the time, including the following:
- success in sports often becomes more important at colleges than education
- this obsession with success in sports often leads to the admission of students who are educationally unqualified
- this obsession with success in sports can become an obsession not only for coaches and athletes but for fellow students and even for professors
- although professors have a particular obligation to uphold the educational standards of colleges, often they succumb to peer pressure and/or to their own enthusiasm for sports and thus compromise those standards
- the vocabulary used by the professor described in the Bolenciecwez episode suggests that this man is intelligent, but he is obviously willing to compromise his standards when trying to assist the football player
- even the professor’s name – “Mr. Bassum” – seems part of Thurber’s mockery, since it resembles the words “pass him”
- Mr. Bassum is willing to go to embarrassing lengths to make sure that Bolenciecwez can answer a simple question, but the other students are similarly willing to embarrass themselves for the same reason
- in fact, the only one who seems embarrassed by the whole episode is Bolenciecwez himself. His embarrassment actually makes us think better of him; in some ways he is the only person who doesn’t compromise academic standards (because he has none to begin with)
- Bolenciecwez seems unable not simply to answer a factual question but even to follow a very simple train of logic
- When Bolenciecwez finally does succeed in answering Bassum’s repeated question, Bassum is pleased, suggesting how thoroughly his standards have been compromised
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