This Week in Doonesbury: Student Poverty and a Brief History of Walden House

On 7 April 2019 Doonesbury drew attention to an issue that largely goes unmentioned in the media, but is, if we zoom out a little bit, closely related to one of the biggest (non-Trump-related) stories of 2019. The issue is student homelessness, and while it may not be on the public radar, thinking about young people trying to get an education while struggling against abject poverty might help us better understand what’s at stake in the recent college admissions scandal.

In March 2019, federal prosecutors charged fifty people who were involved in scams to get the children of wealthy families into top-ranked U.S. universities. From bribing university sports coaches to recommend acceptance based on falsified athletic records to having other people take their kids’ SAT exams, well-heeled parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on scams that would ensure that their children got into the most selective schools. The scandal raised critical questions about academic integrity, but it also drew attention to how the economy of American university education perpetuates social equality. Some were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraudulently get their children into a top university to maintain their family’s status, wealth and privilege; meanwhile, 44 million Americans share $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, the repayment of which is creating “a new form of social stratification … that will have ramifications for generations to come.” The education that is a prerequisite for social mobility is becoming totally unaffordable.

But one doesn’t have to wait for the student loan repayment notices to begin arriving to see how the economics of higher education are no longer sustainable. One recent study reveals that over a third of college students report living with food insecurity, and almost 10% are homeless, numbers that only get worse when we focus on community colleges. On 20 January 2019, CBS News profiled a Humboldt State University student who was on Ford Family Foundation scholarship but who had to live in her vehicle. The same report notes that the city of Chicago recently started a program specifically to assist homeless students.

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Walden’s longer history in one panel. Doonesbury, 7 April 2019

It may well have been that CBS story that inspired the 7 April strip. We begin with Sam getting out of her car and telling her unseen passenger that she just had to “give [her] parents a heads-up.” We then see Sam with her mother in the kitchen. Boopsie asks, “So she wants to rent a room from us?” At this point, I assumed that this was another instalment in Trudeau’s explorations of the question of gender fluidity; perhaps, I thought, a trans friend of Sam’s had been kicked out of her home when her parents found out who she was. But in the next panel, we see that the problem is financial: Angela, Sam’s friend, is homeless, living in her car because her scholarship doesn’t cover room and board. Boopsie is stunned that a Walden College student is homeless, and makes a snap decision, based on the long history of the house that has been Doonesbury’s home base since 1972: “Walden HAS been a commune and a refugee sanctuary,” she reasons. “I see no reason why it couldn’t become a homeless shelter!!” While B.D. gives his expected objection as the punchline, it would seem that Walden, a house that has become a mainstay of comics-page real estate, is about to take on a new role.

Walden began life in the funny pages as the off-campus commune where most of the Doonesbury cast lived from 1972 until 1985. Communes have a long history in the United States, dating at least as far back as experiments like the Oneida Community in mid-19th century upstate New York (not to mention communal living practices among First Nations). In the 1960s and 70s, communal living provided the hippie movement with places where it could to try to put some of its social values into practice. The name of the house is, of course, an explicit reference to the classic text by Henry David Thoreau that explores themes of personal introspection, spiritual growth and the virtues of simple living; the values of transcendentalist thought are a direct precursor to the hippie movement of the 1960s and 70s. While Walden took on a number of incarnations – commune, refugee centre, church, and now homeless shelter – one constant is that the house always provided a place where communities came together to live out the values articulated by the hippie generation.

On 19 April 1972, the Doonesbury crew – minus B.D., who was still in Vietnam – moved into a house close to Walden College and founded Walden Commune. B.D. joined the commune upon returning from the war. As the token conservative, he was hesitant to embrace the communal lifestyle, but some persuasion in the form of a keg of beer installed in his room helped him overcome his reluctance.

Life at Walden Commune was shaped by some of the key cultural dynamics of the late 60s and early 70s, including the new politics of gender. The move to Walden came soon after Trudeau moved away from writing about women in ways that were informed by the inherent sexism of the underground comix movement to explicitly embracing feminism. He used daily life at Walden to explore how women’s demands for greater respect played out in shared domestic space. The women of Walden needed to make a few things clear to their male housemates: Nicole and Didi had to fight to get the boys to perform their share of household duties, and to undo the boys’ preconceptions that sharing accommodations with women would facilitate casual sexual encounters.

Walden also allowed Trudeau to poke fun at emerging dietary trends that were rooted in the hippie generation’s valorization of all things “natural,” a trend that continues to shape food consumption patterns to our day. Zonker was especially attracted to the possibilities of food deemed to be sufficiently “organic” or “macrobiotic,” though he lacked any real idea of how to make such foods palatable. When Mike points out that the lettuce in the salad that Zonker is preparing is dirty, Zonker notes that it’s “CLEAN dirt! Ecologically PURE dirt!” The next day, the dinner Zonker prepares is a plate of “nourishing whole grain wheat” that he harvested from his garden.

Zonker’s gardening provided what I think is the only explicit link that Trudeau drew between Walden Commune and the man for whom it was named: like Thoreau with his beans, Zonker sees his wheat patch as a mode of self-expression through honest work. “What shall I learn of beans, or beans of me?” asked Thoreau. Zonker “[feels] the same way about wheat. Beyond allowing him to derive a sense of meaning, Zonker’s obsession with his wheat patch – including daily shampooings and feeding it scrambled eggs – marked the an important stage in his development as a character who injected a sense of whimsical fantasy into the strip, a theme Trudeau foregrounded with Zonker’s adventures in Walden Puddle. Zonker and Bernie discovered the puddle shortly after moving to the commune, and it soon became a place where Zonker could indulge his imagination and retreat from a reality that was sometimes just too much to handle.

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Zonker loved his puddle Doonesbury, 28 April 1972

In 1985, with Walden’s residents having graduated and moved on, Walden Commune went on the market. Reverend Scot Sloane took over the house and transformed it into Walden Sanctuary, a home for refugees from America’s wars in Latin America. While much of the ensuing arc had more to do with the political and cultural dynamics of refugee settlement, Scot made it clear that he saw the house’s new role as one that in someway carried on the values of the community that used to live there. Giving the new residents a history of the house, Scot starts out by telling them: “In the beginning, there were hippies.” Later, a neighbour introduces himself to Scot, expressing his pleasure at the fact that he no longer has to live beside “a flophouse for loud deviants.” He assumes that living beside a man of the cloth will allow him to finally enjoy some peace and quit: when Scot tells him that the house is a refugee shelter for Latin Americans (“Like salsa music?” he asks, smiling), the man understands that nothing has really changed: the house has more important things to do than avoid bothering the neighbours.

In the early 1990s, Scot hid a crumbling chimney with a steeple and turned the refugee centre into the Little Church of Walden (B.D. notes that the house’s new incarnation is “appropriate,” given that he “had [his] first truly religious experience” in his upstairs bedroom). Once again, Walden became a place where a community of people come together in the name of shared values. At the Little Church of Walden, Scot comes to understand that, increasingly, he has to balance his theology, one based on recommitment and redemption, with community demands for more immediate benefits – like racquetball. Trudeau has some fun with the expanding, and increasingly secular, role that the church is playing in people’s lives, pointing to lectures on nutrition with celebrity chefs, organic co-gardening, and “male bonding nights” as working against Scot’s original vision (he eventually cancels services altogether and takes worship online), but Scot embraces these new elements of his mission. Rather than taking him farther away from God, the Little Church of Walden allows him to immerse himself in the most fundamental role of religion: building community.

In 1997, B.D. B.D. came home to Walden College as head coach of the football program. He and Boopsie, with Sam and Zonker in tow, buy the house from Scot, whose ministry has outgrown the confines of Walden. The return of core cast members to the house marked the completion of a full circle and a series of new beginnings: Zonker had always wanted to “return to the place where it all began for us,” and he’s eager to share the secrets of the property with a new generation. As that new generation joined an older one to build a life at Walden, the house underwent its own changes, notably the installation of a ramp to accommodate B.D.’s wheelchair after he lost his leg in Iraq. As part of the process of rearranging the house to make it accessible for B.D., Zonker installed a keg beside his bed, Trudeau’s sly salute to B.D.’s original arrival to the house.

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The keg was a nice touch. Doonesbury, 31 May 1972 and 21 December 2004

The 7 April strip is a touching look back at a key part of Doonesbury’s history; it’s also something that frustrates me. With the Sunday-only format, and the need to check in regularly with a huge cast of characters, this new incarnation of Walden, one that speaks to a social issue of huge consequence, is something that will be hinted at more than fully developed. Exploring what would emerge from B.D. living with a bunch of A.O.C.-supporting homeless college kids is right in GBT’s wheelhouse, and would make for a classic arc. Still, it’s good to see the old house doing what it has always done best.

 

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