COLUMNS

Dear Mom and Dad

What students write home about, then and now.

May/June 2017

Reading time min

Dear Mom and Dad

Illustration: Terriana/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Gather around and let me tell you about what life was like in the old days.

When you were away at college, occasionally envelopes would appear in your mailbox with your name written in ink on the front. Inside would be one or two or perhaps even three pages of elegantly written script (or garbled chicken scratches) that conveyed what was happening Back Home, how the younger siblings were doing, maybe, or how Dad liked his new job. Invariably, these dispatches ended with a plaintive plea to “write back soon.”

These were called letters. 

Dutiful sons and daughters replied to these letters with letters of their own, all written out on actual paper. In them, they would discuss important topics such as Getting to Know My Roommate or What the Food Is Like. Truth be told, the moms and dads on the receiving end of these letters didn’t care too much about what was in them; mostly, they wanted to confirm that the young person they had sent off to school was, in fact, at school, attending classes, meeting interesting people, and perhaps, in his or her spare time, Becoming an Adult. 

In this issue, beginning on page 56, there are some examples of these cultural artifacts, written by Stanford students dating all the way back to the year that the university opened. They come from a book edited by Alison Carpenter Davis, ’79, who scoured the archives for the past couple of years to assemble a sort of history of correspondence from the Farm. They are interesting to read, especially in the contexts in which they were written. One of my favorites comes from a student in the fall of 1962 who described the mood on campus during the Cuban missile crisis. She was chagrined that for many of her dorm mates, one of the principal fears about the confrontation between nuclear superpowers was that droves of college men might leave school to join the military, and, you know, ruin campus social life. One of her shorter missives to her parents was this one: “Well, since the world didn’t end, I guess I had better get to class or I will be late.” There are many such gems in Davis’s book, and we have tried to offer a representative sampling.

Recognizing that letters written the old-fashioned way have been rare ever since email and texting became ubiquitous, we have also thrown in—as did Davis in her book—modern examples of “letters” home. Although I’m having some fun at the expense of electronic communication, obviously the convenience and immediacy of that medium makes staying in touch a lot easier than sending something through postal mail.

Still, I can’t help feeling something has been lost. I’m sure there are students who still write and send letters the traditional way. I just don’t happen to know any. Regardless, it seems to me that preserving analog letters is especially important now that they so rarely occur. The letters in Davis’s book are historical texts, anthropological evidence, to be treasured for the student perspectives they preserve. And for the clues they offer about student-parent relationships. For example, the intergenerational consistency of a recurring theme: Send Money.


Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.