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Day 7 (Krakow)

May 16, 2012

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Cześć !!!  Ten fictitious bucks to the first person who knows how to pronounce that.

I first stepped on Polish soil at a gas station.  Charming, I know.  Actually it was quite nice!  My first Polish food was also at the gas station.  Do I know what I ate?  No, but for its mysterious nature and consistency I would say it was quite good.

Krakow was an absolutely wonderful city and I hope so much to return one day.  In true study tour fashion we began our first full day with a walking tour of the city.  We walked on cobblestone roads down streets that twisted and turned with each step.  Sometimes an unexpected hill would greet us (Poland is supposed to be the flattest country on Earth) and we would huff and puff up the hill making sure not to twist our ankles on the ancient road.

We began the tour with a look at the Church of St. Mary’s.  One legend tells of the disproportionate bell towers as being a competitive streak among two siblings.  They each designed one tower and, the one brother wanting to outshine his sibling, murdered him and built the church higher.  But being grief stricken from his selfishness, he then leapt off his tower and fell to the ground.

This is one of a few Krakovian legends we learned about from our guide.  Another popular one called the “pigeon legend” tells of Henry the Righteous who aspired to be king.  He went to the Pope in hopes of confirmation.  Along the way he encountered a witch who agreed to help him on his journey.  The witch turned his fellow knights into pigeons and they then picked up pebbles, soared into the air, and dropped them on the ground.  The pebbles on contact with the ground turned into gold.  Henry now had enough money to get to Rome but he squandered it!  He tried to find the witch but was unsuccessful and lived in shame for the rest of his life.  The pigeons were never restored as knights but they enjoy a certain respect from the Krakovians for their honor and bravery.  The end.   (Ta da!)

Back to the history.  So in the picture you can see the left hand tower has two small windows on top of each other, and that continues around the entire perimeter at the top.  Each hour a bugler comes out and plays a tune four times (North, South, East, West).  The tune commemorates the soldiers who used to rally their troops for war.  During one such instance a bugler was shot mid-tune and was killed.  When the bugler today gets to the last window, he too abruptly stops the song to honor the former musician (I am pretty sure this is not a legend).  The job of being a bugler in the Church of St. Mary is a very honorable one.  There is an apartment up in that tower and each hour on the hour the bugler comes out.  Don’t worry though, they switch out the soldiers who do it today.  This isn’t the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

As we made our way past the cathedral we stopped to look at another church which was um… in the ground.  Centuries ago people would get rid of their trash by stamping on it to make it flat and then covered it with soil.  This created a sediment and so today in Krakow you’re several feet higher than what once was.  We couldn’t go into this little church but the picture on the kind of shows how it’s underneath the pavement.  Thank goodness it doesn’t smell anymore, catch my drift?

From there we walked (and walked and walked) to the Jagellionian University and stood in the middle of the Collegium Maius where Copernicus and Pope John Paul II once studied.  This area though once belonged to the Jewish Quarter, whose first mention appears in the 11th century.

I’m not sure how many phrases and synonyms of “to walk” I can use but believe it or not we kept walking (and walking) until we stood in front of an old church called the St. Peter and Paul Church, which is a Jesuit church founded in the Baroque era.  Then just a little down the path there was another church if you can believe it, and this one was built in the 1070s.  It was old old old- built in the Romanesque era and named after St. Andrew.

Whew.  That’s a lot of churches.  Then again, it is Europe.

On our way again we huffed and puffed up a hill to get to……. a fast food restaurant!  No just kidding, it was another cathedral.  But this one is BIG and worth every minute of visual splendor you can get.  For us that meant a total of fifteen minutes inside the cathedral which was an injustice.  Wawel Cathedral was built at different times but it’s earliest construction dates to 900 years ago.  Wawel has many sections that are all situated on top of Wawel Hill including the Renaissance Courtyard, Wawel Castle, and underground crypts named after famous Catholic saints and / or Polish notables.  This complex lies on the edge of the Vistula River.

When we walked in BAM! magnificence everywhere.  We are not allowed to take pictures which is unfortunate but the place was adorned from ceiling to floor in dark velvet, silver, gold, marble, ornate wood, you name it.  Every time I looked somewhere I was taken about by the ornate decor of the nave and the awe this must have produce when it was first consecrated.  From artwork to artifacts the cathedral held many treasures including a stirrup from the Battle of Vienna 1683.  Many people are buried there too, most notably John III Sobieski.  And where might you know of this battle and this name?!  FROM MY THESIS!

You’re welcome.


Oh and by the way it’s pronounced cheschj.


Day 6 (Dresden)

May 15, 2012

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Another day, another new city to explore!  While Berlin was wonderful and I enjoyed all that it had to offer, I thought the one thing that lacked was architecture.  Don’t get me wrong, they had buildings of course.  And they had big buildings.  But… no offense… it lacked grandeur!  A sprout like me with Austrian roots loves the gothic, the baroque, the stately architecture that is one of the defining elements of Austrian culture.  With our walking tour of Dresden, I marveled at how wonderfully quaint and picturesque the city was.  I also marveled at the Frühlingsmarkt (Spring Market) located in the center of the city.  I marveled at it very much.

Speaking of picturesque… here’s the bad news.  I have hardly any pictures.  I’d love to say that there’s some crazy reason behind why I do not have any pictures (e.g. I gave it to a professional photographer and let him keep the photos, it got stolen by a garden gnome), but alas, I think I accidentally deleted them.  My b.

Here are some basic facts about Dresden.  The whole city was firebombed in 1945 and left in ruins, and I mean big time.  Here are some examples (and no I obviously couldn’t have taken these pictures) :

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-041-07 / CC-BY-SAAttribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-60015-0002 / Löwe / CC-BY-SA

Above left is an aerial image of the city’s destruction.  Above right is a picture of the Frauenkirche in 1958– more about that later.  (Both photos are properly attributed).

Reconstruction of the city began in 1956.  Think about how much effort that took– the rubble was transferred to meadows near the River Elbe where they still remain today (covered with dirt and grass).  Walking around the streets of Dresden today can sometimes be misleading if you don’t know the history.  Parts of the city look no different than other Baroque cities in Europe– the buildings, the row homes, the churches all seem to be from another era.  When the Dresdeners rebuilt the city they built it in such a way that it would once again appear as it did before World War II.

The Frauenkirche was a major stop on our walking tour, and for good reason.  The picture above of the cathedral in 1958 was still in ruins.  In fact, the ruins remained that way up until 1995!  Everyone, including people elsewhere in Germany and the world, had different ideas about what to do with the site.  Many people, including my professor and tour guide, voiced concern about rebuilding the site.  The rubble had come to stand for the symbolic “don’t let history repeat itself” idea.  Since much of our tour was about memory of the Holocaust and World War II, we learned about the significance of leaving the rubble as a reminder that the atrocities committed during World War II should never again happen.  Today however, I think most people are very happy the cathedral was rebuilt, and for good reason– it’s beautiful!

Attribution: Gryffindor

After our tour of the city was finished, I think almost everyone raced back to the center city to have at it at the Frühlingsmarkt.  And who wouldn’t?  Everything I have ever wanted in life was in that markt: bratwurst, beer nuts, ice cream, dingsbums— the dingsbums!!  They’re little trinkets and things, good for looking at while stuffing your face with delicious ice cream.  Oh how I wish I still had those photos!!!  Below is a picture of something I ate the night before called a jause.  It’s a heavenly dish for meat eaters of everything you could ever want (salami, ham, bologna, hard salami, liver pate, prosciutto, wurst, etc).


After our lunch break we all heaved ourselves onto the bus (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one up a few pounds from lunch) and sat there for another eight hours as we crossed into Poland.  And that my friends, will be the start of another post.

Day 5 (Ravensbrück Concentration Camp)

May 14, 2012

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The evening before our trip to Ravensbrück was ripe with anticipation.  For perhaps two thirds of the class, this was to be the first time at a concentration camp.  For that reason people were anxious, scared of what they’d see, afraid of what they’d imagine.

I got a real wake up call on arrival to Ravensbrück.  The scenery around the camp is so breathtakingly beautiful with its abundant greenery and nice, quaint homes.  Upon arrival to the camp, houses to the left on a hill overlook a beautiful lake with plenty of trees for shade and a cobblestone path to walk on.  Remember this paragraph.

As we walked closer to the camp entrance we looked on in shock as we saw something dark grey in the distance.  Just a dozen yards away we saw that beyond the yellow gate was hell on Earth.

Camp Entrance

We gathered at the spot right at the foreground of this picture to hear about stories of townspeople who encountered the camp on business visits.  One such story of a teenager who delivered meat to the camp was not exactly a hardline anti-Semitic, but he wasn’t necessarily sympathetic to the Jews either.  On one delivery day he saw the women inside the camp (he did not know that this was a concentration camp), shaven, dirty, and emaciated, and thought they were less than human.  He thought perhaps this is what the Jews looked like.  On another day delivering meat he saw women again, this time appearing at a healthy weight and not nearly as dirty (I do not know if the hair was shaved at that point).  He knew at that moment what was going on and what would be the fate of these women.  He knew then on that the Nazis were wrong and henceforth stopped delivering meat.

Ravensbrück Konzentrationslager was the only all-female camp during the Holocaust.  At first a camp for political prisoners, it became a camp for Jews, asocials, gypsies, and lesbians as well.  About 32,000 women, children, and a few men were known to have died at Ravensbrück.  Remember the paragraph from above?  The camp was purposely built near the lake to give the impression that women arriving to the camp would be in a not-so-bad place.  The cobblestone walkway that we walked on was made entirely through slave labor at the hands of the Nazis.  It is not known how many women and girls died toiling over the road.  Those houses on the hill belonged to the Nazi guards and their families and children would often watch and call out demeaning names to the women slaving over the road.  When we learned all of that information, I felt nauseous.

Inside the camp there was nothing but what looked like fields of coal.  Porous and jagged, we hobbled across the stones to stop at the site of subtle shallow divots in the ground.  These long, rectangular divots indicated where barracks used to be.  I asked why there were no barracks left and it was because the Soviets had occupied them after liberation and / or had sold them as parts to townspeople who needed them on their farms.  In some ways, it was almost better that they weren’t there.  The darkness of the place was enough.  Today what remains is a former machine labor building (inaccessible), the crematorium, the prison, the SS building, and the SS houses in the distance.  Plaques indicate the site of the former gas chamber as well as barracks and roll call platforms.  Pictures of these sites can be seen in the slideshow at the bottom.  Included are pictures of the gate, the cobblestone road, inside the prison, the crematorium (poor quality I apologize), as well as the ash field with the remains of thousands of women who perished.  These pictures do not really do the place justice– it is hard to capture evil in a 4×6 photograph, but to see the place in person is haunting.

Each blog post has been published reflecting the date the place was visited, although the posts are being transcribed in the present.  To be perfectly honest, in the month that I have been back, I still have trouble falling asleep every night.  I have never been one to fall asleep quickly, and every night I try to push what I saw and what I imagined out of my mind.  I visited four concentration / extermination camps including the notorious Auschwitz (-Birkenau), however Ravensbrück continues to haunt me the most.  I hope I never go back.

Day 4 (Wannsee / Grunewald Station)

May 13, 2012

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To say that I visited a charming manor in the German countryside where fifteen Nazi officials planned the Final Solution is utterly incomprehensible to me.  Unfortunately, such a rustic and scenic area became the location where men sat down to figure out the best way to exterminate the Jews in a quick and orderly manner, otherwise known in the future as systematic extermination.  As I walked around inside the infamous Wannsee House, I took note of the beautiful lake outside the conference room.  At lunch I ate with the lake’s view in front of me.  The connection between the past and the present was eerily surreal.  Had Reinhard Heydrich, the conference leader, looked out upon the lake, too, at lunch?  It’s amazing how evil can manifest itself in the most placid of things.  The lake had nothing to do with the evil that came forth from that day, yet I felt extremely uncomfortable eating lunch knowing the view was as beautiful to me as it was to those officers.  Actual transcripts and conference proceedings from the Wannsee House record the 1.5 hour long conference as a “normal” one– meaning hardly any emotion, certainly not the kind that we would feel upon hearing that men are planning such atrocities in the name of mankind.

The Wannsee House was built in 1914 and purchased by the SS in 1940.  By the time Nazism rose to power, Wannsee had become a hotel for important SS officials travelling to Berlin.  Today the house serves as a museum with floor to ceiling photographic exhibitions full of thought provoking captions.  During our tour of Wannsee, our guide lectured us on the use of photography during the Nazi period.  I will never look at a photograph the same way!  His lecture was so unbelievably eye-opening and revealed gestures, poses, and emotions in pictures I would never have noticed: whose hand is pushing whom in the background, what poses (if any) are the Nazis making in the foreground, what clothes are people wearing off to the side of the picture, what reactions do passerby have, etc.  Putting the pieces together can often tell someone who took the picture and what it was used for.  I will include a picture here although I apologize for the poor clarity.  Try to analyze the picture yourself and decide what purposes the pictures held and who took them and for what audience it was intended.  You can click on the image to bring up a larger size.  And feel free to reply to this post with your thoughts on the pictures (you do not need to be a WordPress member to comment).  I would be interested to know what the public thinks.

Please click on this image to get a closer look

The one part of the exhibition that stuck with me the most was a quote that ran along the length of a wall in Wannsee, and I think everyone should ponder on this poignant lesson:

“When I was fifteen, one of my classmates asked me in the history lesson whether I was in fact related ‘to that Himmler’.  I said yes with a lump in my throat.  It went so quiet in the classroom you could hear a pin drop.  They were all alert and curious.  But the teacher became nervous and carried on as if nothing had happened.  She missed the chance to make us understand just what continues to link us, the descendants, with these ‘old stories'”.  – Katrin Himmler, born 1967, Heinrich Himmler’s great-niece.

After Wannsee our class took a trip to see the Grunewald Station Memorial, a site where thousands of Jews were deported via train to various concentration and extermination camps.  As you may have noticed in previous (or future) posts, I am a big fan of integrative or interactive sites of commemoration because it transports you to a moment in the past.  At the Grunewald Grunewald Station MemorialMemorial, one must walk the length of the train tracks on either side to read about what the fate of the Jews.  Simple yet down to the point, this memorial commemorates the number of Jews sent to the camps on each date it occurred– unfortunately that meant the memorial was quite an extensive one.  In each piece of the memorial, the date was given along with the number of Jews deported and to where.  In the picture off to the right it indicates that on June 26, 1942, 202 Jews were taken from Berlin and deported, but the destination point is unknown (unbekannt).  I walked along the length of the memorial to capture video footage of each of the dates.  Unfortunately it was done in haste at times, as I did not have enough time to walk around slowly.  To see the video, please click here.

Grunewald Station Holocaust Memorial

Day 3 (Berlin)

May 11, 2012

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Jewish Museum Berlin

If there has ever been a museum to take me completely by surprise, it is the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, or the Berlin Jewish Museum.  To be perfectly honest, prior to our visit I was unsure as to whether or not it would be interesting or tactful.  Since I had no expectations as having never been to such a museum before, it could have run the gamut– tactless, brazenly histrionic, dull, informative, interactive, touching, etc.  What made this one of the best museum visits I’ve ever had however, was our tour guide.

Museum Exhibition EntranceI am absolutely in awe of the building’s architecture.  A descent on the stairway leads into a hall with angular walls and slanted walkways which causes one to stop and question: “where do I start and where do I go without anyone directing me in a proper direction?”.  Our tour guide’s passionate lecture brought the odd walls and walkways into perspective.  She explained that confusion is the very first reaction a visitor feels upon making the trip down into the museum.  There is no correct direction, just as there was no right path to take when the Jews began experiencing the waves of antisemitism in the 30s and 40s.  I thought it all ingenious until I walked into the Garden of Exile where I was truly in awe.  The steeply slanted walkways with the jutting columns was similar in layout to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, but seemed to focus more on the confusion of waxing prejudice and uprooted lives during the 30s and 40s.  In some ways it was quite uncomfortable walking around the Garden of Exile because it took so much effort to climb up the cobblestone path only to have to watch your steps as you quickly walked down in an uncontrolled manner.  It was as disorienting as the history it represented.

The tour ended very appropriately with the Memory Void, a true denkmal.   A denkmal is often translated as “monument”, but it refers more to a point of reflection because the nature of the object before you is one that induces all kinds of thought.  Here at this point of reflection, 10,000 stylized faces covered the floor representing murdered Jews whose voices would never be heard.  As people clanked over the faces, they were silent.  When it was my turn to walk out onto the exhibition the Memory Voidclanking beneath my feet made me shiver.  To have to step on faces to get to the other side of the exhibit was a very thought-provoking experience: is it okay to keep walking?  Should I really feel the need to make my way over whilst continually stepping on the gaping faces of those staring up at me?  It hit home how many people could never rise up and change society because they had been brutally murdered.  It was infuriating, sobering, eye-opening, and truly tragic.

Memory Void

Day 1 (Berlin Arrival) / Day 2 (Berlin)

May 10, 2012

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Following an eight hour flight which consisted of two hours of in-flight poker and a few episodes of Family Guy, our study tour to Germany successfully landed at the Berlin-Tegel Airport, a destination for which none of us would ever see again (TXL is being shut down in June 2012 since it is no longer needed now that Communism is out the door- hooray!).  After a relatively short wait for luggage we left for our hotel which was located in Alexanderplatz in Berlin.  We were allowed a few hours downtime (downtime here translates to a mass panic and subsequent hunting down of places with free Facebook access) before we were taken to our first  destination.  We donned our sailor hats and headed out on a pleasant river cruise that included sightseeing of Berlin’s most famous waterfront buildings and bridges.  I had no idea Berlin had more bridges than Venice did!  The warm air and light breeze meant most of us tried very hard to stay awake but jet lag was hard to overcome.  After the cruise the students gathered at a restaurant for what would be the first European meal of many.  Spargel, a sort of white asparagus, was in season when we arrived and our professors were very excited for us to have a German meal with the legendary vegetable.  I myself tuckered in to a wienerschnitzel dish, a childhood favorite of breaded veal that had a side of potatoes, and mineral water (mitt kohlensäure aber natürlich!).  It was a nice evening to get to know our fellow classmates.

Topographie des Terrors / Berlin Wall

For the first full day I was immensely pleased with what I learned.  Being new to the Master’s program means I probably know much less than everyone else but the tour guides did an excellent job lecturing about memory of the events of World War II as well as the Holocaust.  How do we want to bring the past back into consciousness?  Is it by commemorating victims or aggressively denouncing the perpetrators?  Do we place emphasis on WWII, the Reich, the Communist era?  These were all great questions that we were asked to reflect upon while we perused the Topographie des Terrors, the museum that stands on the former Gestapo headquarters.  There is no correct answer as living historiography shows us that we will always put forth new ways to remember the past as well as seek to analyze the ways in which we remembered in the present.  We wandered the museum and looked at images of those who had been rounded up by the Gestapo for interrogation.  Then we went outside to the front of the museum where parts of the Berlin Wall still stood.  From there we walked around back of the museum and listened to stories as told by our tour guide of people who were interrogated by the Gestapo in the 30s.  We listened to these stories as we stood by the foundation of two former prison cells.

Berlin Holocaust MemorialOur next destination was the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.  As an undergrad I learned about this immersive site in a German Culture course and remembered how much I wanted to experience it in person.  As we walked up to the memorial I noticed how much larger it was than I had thought.  The graduate students gathered together with our wonderful tourguide for a look at how the memorial was designed and the criticisms some hold today.  2,711 long, concrete blocks called stele are “arranged” in a space of varying heights and angles.  I put the word arranged in quotations because the artist left the arrangement shrouded in ambiguity.  In some rows one can see a block is missing.  In other places the block could be so low to the ground you might not realize it’s there.  There are even ground-level stele outside of the memorial confines.  Our tour guide said we should think about this as we were given the chance to go into the memorial.

It’s true how disoriented one feels when walking on the undulating concrete.  The further I walked and the more the stele loomed over Inside Berlin Holocaust Memorialme, the less I was “thinking”.  That is to say that I thought less with words and more with feelings, sights, and sounds.  Everyone has a unique experience and how I felt could be totally different than how someone else perceived the place.  But the memorial took on a primal experience.  Had I been Jewish during the 30s and 40s, instinct would have told me to fear every move I was about to make.  At every turn I sank deeper into a concrete maze where high towers blocked me from seeing the light.  With a few steps this way or that way I found myself on higher or lower ground, but still the blocks rose over me with a sinister feeling.  Personally I think the memorial was done quite well.  It’s hard to connect with a memorial when all you do is read a plaque or “stand on a spot”, so to say.  This memorial is tumultuous and serves as a reminder that things didn’t happen at once back then– it was a gradual but fearful experience.

We headed to another part of Berlin where the Berlin Wall still stood and walked around.  It still surprises me that this wall was 1) real and 2) real up until 1989.  The concept of having such a thing to divide a city and to divide Europe– it doesn’t seem possible!  But unfortunately it was very real and the Berliners today make sure that history will never repeat itself.  Where the wall is no longer in place, two dark red bricks in the ground serve to remind people of the former division of the city. Here, graffiti reminded us of the division of human rights.

Berlin Wall Former Berlin Wall

A note on taking pride in your school.

February 25, 2012

As I’ve mentioned in just about all of my posts, I love my school and am grateful beyond words for it giving me the opportunities it has.  Today the leadership development section of my school hosted an event in which students learned more about networking and professionalism and today I met someone who failed so terribly on both accounts– someone so egregious in nature that if I ever encounter him again I will thank him for forever being my living example as how not to act.

At the end of the program students, alumni, and local business people sat down for a networking luncheon.  I chose to sit down at this individual’s table because he was alone (I suppose that should have been my first sign).  We introduced ourselves and I asked him if he enjoyed our school’s newest building.  His retort was that he helped design the building and said so in a very ostentatious manner (the second sign).   He then asked me what major I was in and when I replied “history”, ———he cut me off and began lambasting the program.

Hold up.

You are here as a professional, representing past alumni, representing future opportunities to up and coming leaders.  And you said what?

When you tell me that you think the history program is “clickish”, back up your statements.  When you tell me that professors in the department are “choosy”, by all means, clarify.  When you said your son wasn’t accepted into the program and felt unwelcome, do some research.  Because last I checked, students in my OUTSTANDING major come from all walks of life.  There are poor people, there are insanely rich people, and there are people everywhere in between.  We have white people, we have black people, we have Asians, we have Spanish and Latinos, we have Middle Eastern, we have Central and South Asian, we have it ALL.  There are Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, spiritual, practitioners of Eastern religion, and those who simply are undecided.  We have straight people and we have gay people.  We have people with learning disorders and people with disabilities.  So tell me how we’re “clickish”, please tell me.  And last I checked, if you wanted to be accepted into the program, you had to go to Upper D-Wing, fill out a change of major form, and that was it.  So before all the other statements you made, you began with one huge fallacy.  You know what DOES unite everyone in my department though?  The fact that we are all passionate, we all work incredibly hard, and we are dedicated to learning more about ourselves, the world, and where we fit in.

Anyone who thinks they can bash the professors at this school is crossing a serious line with me, especially if they attack the history department.  “Choosy”, you say?  If I remember correctly, and I believe I do as I’ve done it at least eight times, THE STUDENT chooses the class, not the other way around.  But you know what?  If you work your ass off, if you show your professors that you are dedicated to your studies, passionate about research, and show willingness to be tested to your full capabilities, then they will reward you beyond belief. That’s being chosen for a reason.  Don’t tell me there’s petty favoritism going on.  It just isn’t there.  These professors are almost all ivy league, they’re not bullshitters.  But this individual, he was.

The last point I want to make refers to his supposed role as an individual, and this is my final point I make to anyone reading this who takes pride in their school: defend it.  When this individual starting talking trash and saying he knew of many students who told him they couldn’t wait to get out, that they wished to have enrolled somewhere else, or that they thought this place was a nightmare, think twice about who you say it to.  This man has never seen me in his life, but has been entrusted to uphold pride in his alma mater, motivate students, and tell them all the great things that come out of that education.  That’s what you wanted to tell me first?  All the bad things you’ve heard about the school and your son’s personal issues that were probably his own damn fault?  They say it takes one bad first impression to ruin it forever.  No school is ever perfect, and mine is included in that.  But if you love your program, you love your faculty, you love your school, and you love what it stands for from its conception, speak out.  Tell that fool why they’re wrong [politely] and tell them that your school has done something for you that has changed your life.  Do for them as they were supposed to do for you: tell them the great things that have gone on at your school and the success everyone can achieve if they apply themselves.

And if he still doesn’t listen, you can always report it to the higher ups ;D