Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

Profile of a Book Lover: Richard Macksey

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the most inspiring professors and book collectors is now exploring the Great Library in Heaven; perhaps it similar to the fantastical, vast library conceived by Jorge Luis Borges in his famous short story “The Library of Babel.” The professor’s name? Richard Macksey, a beloved professor who taught courses on the humanities, comparative literature, and film at Johns Hopkins University for more than 60 years. Sadly he passed away, at the age of 87, on July 22, 2019. The obituary that appeared in The Washington Post gives you a glimpse into his impressive erudition and dedication to the humanities: “Dr. Macksey was a wide-ranging scholar and polymath whose expertise extended from ancient and modern literature — in at least six languages — to medical history, biophysics, critical theory and film. He had joint appointments in Johns Hopkins’s School of Arts and Sciences and the medical school, where he helped design a curriculum that included writing and the humanities. He developed the university’s first courses on African American literature, women’s studies, scholarly publishing and film studies… [He] helped found the Humanities Center (now the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature), for the interdisciplinary study of literature, history, art and philosophy… Dr. Macksey wrote poetry and fiction, edited scholarly journals and published academic papers on everything from Hungarian revolutionary poems to mathematics to French literature… He also was a founder of what is now the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore.” As one student reflected on Macksey’s profound influence: “You’re lucky if, in your lifetime, you have one or two teachers who inspire you the way he did. I think he approached teaching in the way someone creates a work of art. If you think about the way art is created, it comes from some mysterious place. Macksey’s approach to teaching comes from that mysterious place.” Another student said, “You could never mention an author, historian or book that he did not have an expert knowledge of. He had such a capacious mind.”

But of course, in addition to his tremendous intellect and insatiable curiosity, Macksey was a quintessential book collector. His capacious mind was mirrored by an equally capacious library. Over the decades he created a wondrous private library with more than 70,000 books that filled just about every room in his house as well as a converted garage. Several of his colleagues believe it to be one of the largest private libraries in Maryland. Commenting on this, Dean of libraries at Johns Hopkins, Winston Tabb, remarked: “I’m almost certain that that’s true. I’ve been in many, many private libraries, but never one like Professor Macksey’s.” If you are a true book lover it is as spectacular as it is inspiring. Fortunately, there are several videos that provide a tour through the labyrinth of bookshelves (one led by Macksey himself). The viewer will be guided through packed bookshelf after bookshelf, with books in just about every language, piled on every flat surface that is available. Perhaps the organization could be best described as controlled chaos (book lovers know that there is always a method to the madness). Perhaps if Marie Kondo came across this library she would have a heart attack — but that is no matter for Macksey who believed that every single book sparked joy. Take that Kondo!

There are two remarkable videos shot (each about 20 minutes long) by a student, identified as Omda M, titled “In the Library of Richard Macksey” that allow you to step into Macksey’s magnificent library and poke around the stacks. Omda introduces the viewer to his process: “The following is a recorded walk through the Richard Macksey library in an effort to see the books sitting on shelves, chairs, tables, stands. The manner of walking, the logic of focusing on this or that title or tableau rather than the other, has to a great extent to be arbitrary, but the invitation and the seduction to which this walking takes itself as an answer is very much necessary and real.” Interestingly, seduction is one of the guiding principles for book collecting for Macksey; Omda elaborates: “Books, or certain books, seduce and you are drawn to them. To the common question of whether he had read all of these books, he would tend to give two answers. First, he knew all of them, their places, their histories and associations. Second, some books are to be devoured, some tasted, some consumed, some taken like medicine, and others used as garnish. They were all like people to him. Except for letting through light and providing seats, he wouldn’t spare any place for his people. A third answer could resort to an ancient metaphor. Just as you don’t go around in a garden smelling all the flowers each by each, a personal library is populated by books that ought to be left sitting in rest and summoned only when necessity spontaneously calls. His little cosmos remains disorganized in appearance, but it has its own structure through and through. Plus, if you want to have a library of your own, by necessity it has to grow ever larger and larger, because one book leads to another, and why should you stop following the lead?”

What will happen to Macksey’s library? you ask. Fortunately it will be find a permanent home in the libraries of Johns Hopkins.

Search for the following videos on Youtube:
A Rare Collection: Lessons Learned from Dick Macksey
In the Library of Richard Macksey: Take 1
In the Library of Richard Macksey: Take 2

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For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Famous Misquotations: In a Time of Universal Deceit, Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act

atkins bookshelf quotations

This quotation, which has a few variants (such as, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary art” or “Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.”) is often attributed to George Orwell. It’s irresistible to writers — particularly political writers — serving as a brilliant epigram that captures the zeitgeist of the modern world. It certainly sounds like him, but, unfortunately there is no evidence that he either said or wrote those words. (Sorry, Orwell fans.)

Thanks to the dedicated detective work of several persistent quotation sleuths, two early sources of the misattributed quotations have been found. So at the very least, we have identified the rascals! The earliest appearance is in the 1982 book Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s Complicity in the Uranium Cartel by Venturino Venturini. Venturing includes the quote “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” as an epigraph and attributes it to Orwell. The second is a letter from a reader of Science Dimension, a Canadian periodical, that repeats the misattribution: “I think George Orwell said in his book 1984 that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Perhaps the closest that the quotation detectives could find, as a precursor to this famous quotation, is this sentence by Antonio Gramsci, a political theorist, that appeared in the Italian weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New Order”) in 1919: “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.”

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

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The Most Poignant Quotes from Mothers Who Lost Their Children to Gun Violence

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt’s a shocking statistic that cannot be sugar-coated in any way: each day in the United States, an average of seven children (under the age of 19), are killed by gun violence. Seven. (The Washington Post recently reported that since 1966, 1,196 Americans have been killed in public mass shootings.) Award-winning portrait photographer Ali Smith, based in New York City, responded to this tragic reality by launching a photography project titled “7 Kids a Day” to capture the grief and agony of mothers who have lost their children to gun violence. “[They] are members of a club no one wants to be a part of,” explains Smith. The goal of the project is for these grieving mothers’ photos and voices — particularly their united call for policy change — to reach a wider audience. Smith adds, ““There’s actually a sanctioned machine that allows criminals to get guns right now and that’s a very fixable problem. What I would like to do with this project is put faces to the statistics and take the conversation out of the theoretical realm.” Here are some of the most poignant quotes from mothers who have lost their children to gun violence and if you are a parent, you have some understanding of the depth of this unfathomable, heartbreaking loss:

Shianne Norman – lost her son, Lloyd (4 years old): “I turned back towards the bullets and ran against the crowd screaming his name, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I lost a part of my soul. There is also a feeling of guilt planted inside me that will never go away. This was not supposed to happen. You don’t bury your children. Your children bury you.”

Sandra Frank – lost her son Teshawn (18 years old): “I went into hibernation. For eight months, I didn’t have a period from the stress. I didn’t talk about how I felt for 17 years. I don’t ask the question why, because what could my son have possibly done to deserve that death? Nothing… None of those bullets have a name on them. Violence can fall anywhere.”

Nicole Hockley – lost her son Dylan (6 years old, student at Sandy Hook): “I thought I knew what pain looked like. The first image that comes to my mind when I think about pain now is [his brother] Jake’s face when my husband told him that Dylan had been killed. He just howled. I’d never heard a child make that kind of noise before… I never thought gun violence could touch me or my community, but my eyes are wide open now.”

Natasha Christopher – lost her son Akeal (15 years old): “I miss my son’s smile. I miss his scent. I miss everything about him. Inside, I am broken. A part of me will always be broken.”

Maxine Lewis – lost her son Locksley (16 years old): “When you kill someone, it’s not just him you rob the world of. You rob what he was going to do. The changes he was going to make. You wipe out a part of history.”

Diana Rodriguez – lost her daughter Samantha (18 years old): “Ten years after Samantha’s death, I keep meeting mothers in this loneliest club that nobody wants to be a member of. We mothers are out here crying… Are your guns more important than my child’s life? With rights comes responsibility and accountability. I don’t see a lot of being accountable for what’s happening in our communities to our children.”

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The Best Books to Read at Every Age From 1 to 100

alex atkins bookshelf books“Books are a portal to our personal histories.” writes Stephanie Merry, editor of Book World at The Washington Post, “Pick up a worn copy of a childhood favorite and you might be transported to the warmth of a parent’s arms or a beanbag chair in a first-grade classroom or a library in your hometown. Avid readers could build autobiographies around their favorite books and come to the realization that what they have read is almost as meaningful as when they read it.” Within that context, the editors rolled up their sleeves and began deliberating and debating which book could be assigned to each year, from age one to 100. And every book lover loves a book list since it invites spirited discussion over what was included or excluded. Obviously with a list this comprehensive, it seems some books were assigned somewhat arbitrarily to a particular age. Nevertheless, the editors deserve kudos for their ambitious goal. Without further ado, here is the list of “The Best Books to Read at Every Age:”

Age 1: “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle

Age 2: “Llama Llama Red Pajama” by Anna Dewdney

Age 3: “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak

Age 4: “Charlie Parker Played Be Bop” by Chris Raschka

Age 5: “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein

Age 6: “Ramona the Pest” by Beverly Cleary

Age 7: “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes” by Bill Watterson

Age 8: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.k. Rowling

Age 9: “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” by Judy Blume

Age 10: “Smile” by Raina Telgemeier

Age 11: “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds

Age 12: “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D. Taylor

Age 13: “I Am Malala” by Malala Yousafzai

Age 14: “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky

Age 15: “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

Age 16: “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë

Age 17: “Once Upon a River” by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Age 18: “A Gate At the Stairs” by Lorrie Moore

Age 19: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Age 20: “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz

Age 21: “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway

Age 22: “Democracy In America” by Alexis De Tocqueville

Age 23: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Age 24: “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand

Age 25: “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith

Age 26: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Age 27: “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

Age 28: “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde

Age 29: “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan

Age 30: “The Joy of Sex” by Alex Comfort

Age 31: “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child

Age 32: “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

Age 33: “Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story” by Paul Monette

Age 34: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison

Age 35: “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Age 36: “Life Among the Savages” by Shirley Jackson

Age 37: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Age 38: “The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford

Age 39: “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty

Age 40: “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Age 41: “Rabbit, Run” by John Updike

Age 42: “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud

Age 43: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston

Age 44: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Age 45: “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple

Age 46: “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward

Age 47: “Stretching” by Bob anderson

Age 48: “Bossypants” by Tina Fey

Age 49: “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

Age 50: “Fifty Shades of Grey” by El James

Age 51: “Who Do You Think You Are?” by Alice Munro

Age 52: “Men Without Women” by Haruki Murakami

Age 53: “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman

Age 54: “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker

Age 55: “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout

Age 56: “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön

Age 57: “Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Age 58: “The Plague of Doves” by Louise Erdrich

Age 59: “Dynamic Aging” by Katy Bowman

Age 60: “The Five Years Before You Retire” by Emily Guy Birken

Age 61: “Fear of Dying” by Erica Jong

Age 62: “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson

Age 63: “Our Souls At Night” by Kent Haruf

Age 64: “Old In Art School” by Nell Painter

Age 65: “65 Things To Do When You Retire” by Mark Evan Chimsky

Age 66: “The “Outlander” Series by Diana Gabaldon

Age 67: “Don Quixote” by Miguel De Cervantes

Age 68: “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

Age 69: “I Remember Nothing” by Nora Ephron

Age 70: “Master Class: Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier” by Peter Spiers

Age 71: “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie

Age 72: “Love In the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez

Age 73: “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” by Robert Caro

Age 74: “Paris In the Present Tense” by Mark Helprin

Age 75: “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss

Age 76: “Women Rowing North” by Mary Pipher

Age 77: “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson

Age 78: “Charlotte’s Web” by E.b. White

Age 79: “The Coming of Age” by Simone De Beauvoir

Age 80: “Coming Into Eighty: Poems” by May Sarton

Age 81: “Devotions” by Mary Oliver

Age 82: “The Summer of a Dormouse” by John Mortimer

Age 83: Thrillers by Walter Mosley, Dorothy Gilman, and Jacqueline Winspearr

Age 84: “The Last Unknowns” by John Brockman

Age 85: “Ravelstein” by Saul Bellow

Age 86: “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam

Age 87: “King Lear” by William Shakespeare

Age 88: “Nearing Ninety: and Other Comedies of Late Life” by Judith Viorst

Age 89: “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing 90” by Donald Hall

Age 90: “Beachcombing For a Shipwrecked God” by Joe Coomer

Age 91: “Selected Poems: 1988-2013” by Seamus Heaney

Age 92: “Nothing To Be Frightened of” by Julian Barnes

Age 93: “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari

Age 94: “This Chair Rocks: a Manifesto Against Ageism” by Ashton Applewhite

Age 95: the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Age 96: “Somewhere Towards the End” by Diana Athill

Age 97: “My Own Two Feet” by Beverly Cleary

Age 98: “Life Is So Good” by George Dawson and Richard Glaubman

Age 99: “Little Boy” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Age 100: “Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author” by Herman Wouk

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What is the Meaning of “Six Ways From Sunday?”

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesWriting about Leonard Cohen’s famous song Hallelujah, a music critic wrote: “First released in 1984, [Hallelujah] has been covered six ways from Sunday by a wide range of artists (from Jeff Buckley to Bon Jovi).” Say what? What does “six ways from Sunday” mean?

Just like the aforementioned Cohen song, this phrase is a bit of chameleon, changing over time, shifting in wording depending on the speaker or writer. The phrase has a number of variants — seems like no one can decide just how many ways from Sunday to emphasize. Variants include: “two ways to Sunday,” “three ways to Sunday,” “four ways to Sunday,” “four different ways to Sunday,” “five ways to Sunday,” “seven ways to Sunday,” “eight ways to Sunday,” “nine ways to Sunday,” “ten ways to Sunday,” “twelve ways to Sunday,” “twenty ways to Sunday,” “forty ways till Sunday,” and then a giant leap to “hundred ways to Sunday.” And then there is the variation of the preposition: six ways to Sunday, or six ways from Sunday.

Despite the various wording of the phrases, however, their meanings remains the same: “six ways from Sunday” (the most common form of the idiom) means “in every possible way,” “completely,” or “thoroughly.” The phrase “six ways for Sunday” makes its first appearance in the early 1800s, while the more common version, “six ways from Sunday” first appears in the late 1800s. “So how did it come about?” you ask. Excellent question; however, the inspiration is not fully known. Lexicographers have surmised that since a calendar has six days before (or after) Sunday, the idiom underscores the certainty of reaching Sunday no matter where you begin. Moreover, the idiom implies that there are multiple methods of approach to Sunday, thus applied generally, it means many options to reach the same target — in short, thoroughness.

The precise origin of this phrase is not clear and has perplexed many lexicographers. However, lexicographer Michael Quinion offers perhaps what is the most compelling — and only — explanation. He cites a passage from James Pauling’s short story, “Cobus Yerks” (1828) as the first formulation of the phrase in America (a variant of the modern form we recognize today): “looked at least nine ways from Sunday.” Quinion suggests that this phrase is an amalgamation of two earlier British slang phrases: “she had look’d nine ways” (1622) and “looking both ways for Sunday” (1785). Over the years, of course, other writers severed the association with the verb “look” (making the phrase far more versatile) and tinkered with the number of ways. Quinion adds: “Sunday was presumably chosen because it would have been regarded as the most significant day of the week. The most common form probably owes its success to the alliteration of Sunday with six and a false mental association with a complete week.”

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The Most Moving Death Monologue in Cinematic History

alex atkins bookshelf moviesEach year, moviegoers see hundreds of death scenes and corresponding death speeches in movies, but this particular short speech (only 50 seconds) is one of the most poetic and memorable in the history of cinema. In fact, philosopher and author Mark Rowlands wrote, “[the speech is] perhaps the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history.” So what exactly is he raving about?

For the answer, let’s step into a time machine and travel back to 1982 — the year that neo-noir science fiction film Blade Runner premiered. The film, directed by Ridley Scott (with a majestic and haunting score by Vangelis), was based on Philip K. Dick’s novel titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? published in 1968. The film takes place in a dystopian metropolis (specifically Los Angeles in 2019, which is, um, now… scary) when a group of replicants (bioengineered androids manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation) return to earth after escaping from a work colony out in space. The leader of the gang of replicants is Roy Batty (played by Dutch actor Ruger Hauer). We then meet Rick Deckard (played by a youthful Harrison Ford), a burnt-out blade runner (a cop who hunts down replicants) comes out of retirement to hunt down Batty and his crew. Near the end of the film, Deckard and Batty are engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase sequence though abandoned buildings in the evening — and in the pouring rain. There is a point when Deckard slips and falls, but Batty reaches down to save Deckard, knowing that Deckard is determined to kill him. As the rain pours down on Batty, and his life is slipping away, Batty looks at Deckard and reflects on his life, while a poignant Vangelis melody plays in the background:

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

The speech is so famous, so frequently quoted, that it is referred to as the “tears in the rain” monologue. In an interview with British magazine Radio Times, Hauer explained how he changed the original script, written by David Peoples and Hampton Fancher, the night before the shooting of that scene. Hauer elaborates, “The irony is that all I did in Blade Runner was… and I’m not saying it’s nothing, but it’s so little. I kept two lines, because I thought they were poetic. I thought they belonged to this character, because somewhere in his digital head he has poetry, and knows what it is. He feels it! And while his batteries are going, he comes up with the two lines… You know, I think a lot of scripts are overwritten. The overwritten stuff comes from the writer and all the executives, but the audience can feel it, and even the best actor cannot sell me with language that is overwritten… So, I look at the script, and I look at my part, because I don’t want to touch anybody [else’s] parts. I shave everything that I feel you don’t need. [In Blade Runner] Ridley gave me all the freedom, because he wanted it to be a character-driven story. He’d never done a film character-driven. He said, ‘This is what I want to do – bring me anything you can come up with, and I’ll take it on if I like it.’”

So Hauer reviewed the script which read: “I’ve seen things… seen things you little people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion bright as magnesium… I rode on the back decks of a blinker and watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments… they’ll be gone,” and revised the last line: “All those moment will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” Hauer adds: “For the end line I was hoping to come up with one line where Roy, because he understands he has very little time, expresses one bit of the DNA of life that he’s felt. How much he liked it. Only one life.” In another interview, Hauer explains the death soliloquy this way: “[Roy wanted to] make his mark on existence… the replicant in the final scene, by dying, shows Deckard what a real man is made of.”

35 years after his work on Blade Runner, Hauer is still amazed by how people remember that scene and that death monologue; Hauer said, “All I did was write one line – I edited, and I came up with one line. That’s the poet in me – that’s my poet, I own him. Great! And then for that line to have such fucking wings – can you imagine what that feels like?”

Sadly, Hauer’s passed away on July 19, 2019, at the age of 75, of an unspecified illness at his home in Beetsterzwaag, Netherlands. It is not known what his final words were, but perhaps he found some comfort knowing that his work — and timeless words — will not be lost in time, like tears in the rain.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:
Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul Sammon
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Misconceptions About the Modern College Student

alex atkins bookshelf educationA survey in October 2018 by Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan organization, asked a representative sample of Americans, as well as individuals who worked in the field of education (leaders of educational institutions, leaders of educational associations, politicians, policy makers, etc.) to describe what they considered to be the typical modern college student. Turns out that most Americans, including the educational experts that should know better, need some serious schooling! — LOL! — most have many misconceptions about today’s college students. Executive Director Julie Peller stated “The data confirms that in several key areas the public is unaware of the demographic shifts that have occurred in higher education. Although policy insiders understand that the needs and aspirations of college students have evolved, the [incorrect] pop culture archetype for the typical college student still seems to dominate the perceptions of many Americans.”

So what are some of the misconceptions about the modern college student? According to the report, the “pop culture archetype” of the modern college student is:
18-24 years old
Lives on or near campus
Parents help with college costs
Attends a 4-year university
Attends full time
Has no children or other family obligations
Has spending money for clothes, beer, and travel

So how far off are these misconceptions from reality? Quite a bit. As one education insider explained, “Picture an 18-year-old from a middle-class background who gets support from parents and goes to school full time. That is probably the experience of most of us in the policymaking community. But that is increasingly not representative of a college student today.” And that’s putting it mildly. Here is the profile of the actual modern college student:
41% of college students are older than 25
13% of first-year students live on campus
55% are financially independent 
39% attend a college part-time; 36% of undergraduate students attend a 2-year college
26% are parents
42% of independent college students live at or below the federal poverty line

Class dismissed.

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