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Sunday, December 4, 2011

From a letter to a college student

...who asked me about what classes I liked, and got more of an answer than they were probably expecting (sometimes one releases unseen floodgates); after talking about all the crazy classes I took, from Abraham Abulafia and Shankara to Mary Daly, Susan Griffin, and Judith Plaskow to Derrida, Foucault, Spivak, and Kristeva, to taking any theatrical role they'd cast me in up to and including playing the Man with the Red Ball Nose in an incomprehensible two-person show in a loud bar at RISD, I came to this, and since it's perhaps the best expression I've managed of the odd ambivalence I have towards college nostalgia, and of one aspect of the oddly crucial role that study abroad played in my biography, I thought I would post it here:

This smorgasbord, this intellectual frenzy, was wonderful -- and shaped me intellectually, to be sure -- but also destabilizing. I learned a lot, but in some ways I was miserable. In particular, the insistence of the outside world that these were supposed to be the best years of my life, had a tendency to make me miserable. They weren't. They were important years, though.

One of the best decisions I made was that, sometime freshman year, I decided I really wanted to be fluent in a language. This wasn't something anyone was pushing at me, it wasn't a lionized skill at the time. It just really bugged me that I could only think in one language, and I wanted the experience of being able to think in another. I chose Italian almost at random -- it fit my schedule, and I had a friend from Italy and figured I could practice with her. After a year and a half of Italian classes, I was not the least bit fluent. I had learned plenty of "about" but not very much "to". Mock conversations in class were awkward, and we were happy to retreat from having to use the lived-life part of the brain into the comfortable academic part, and memorize grammar -- which is useless for communicating, at least at first.

So I decided to go to Italy. The entire academic bureaucracy wanted me to go on an American program abroad, in which I would be with Americans, trying to learn Italian. I read students' reports from these programs and they all sounded like "oh Italy was so fun, I met so many great people, the food was great, I just wished I'd learned more Italian, oh well!" There was only one student report, from a student who had enrolled directly in an Italian university -- not with Americans -- who had actually learned the language.

So, junior year, I went to the Italian department and said I wanted to do that. They fought me kicking and screaming. Why would I want to do something so unregulated and quixotic? I eventually had to drop out of Brown for a semester entirely, and simply enroll directly at the University of Siena -- Brown guaranteed me no credit, though if I came back having learned Italian they would retroactively grant credit.

I spent six months there, and I'm still fluent in Italian. But the important part was that it felt like that was the moment in which I actually started to determine my education. Up until then, though it looked like there was a bewildering variety of choice -- this course or that one? -- I had really been sliding along a well-oiled path laid out for me by others, safe and guaranteed. It was kind of a mind-altering experience, a shock, to find this spot in which my august Nobel-littered institution was simply dead wrong and I was right.

At the University of Siena, too, I realized that Brown's emphatic insistence on its own diversity was kind of a crock. It was "diverse" on very well-considered, safe, comfortable lines. Like race, sure; there was an effort to be racially diverse.That meant there was an effort to find people with different external somatic phenotypes who could log the same number of volunteer hours, violin recitals, and gymnastics meets, give the same answers on the same tests so as to get the same GPAs and SAT scores, and write the same sorts of gushy inspiring noble entrace essays as the rest of the students. It was a pretty brittle kind of diversity. At the University of Siena I was with Japanese academic tourists, career-minded proto-technocrats from Brussels, and guys from Chad who used to race camels across the Sahara for fun -- middle class guys from Chad, in other words; because the Unversity of Siena, unlike Brown, actually paid the way of non-jet-set foreign students (the international jet set, particularly the ones who can answer all the questions on those tests the right way, is a pretty homogenous institution).

Anyway, I don't say this to trash Brown. In some ways, returning from Siena, I actually liked Brown better and felt more comfortable there. Rather than seeing it as the apex of intellectual achievement, the one true path, embodying all of human diversity and the species' highest aspirations etc etc, I could see it for what it was: kind of a quirky, bizarre, uniquely Anglo-American institution (an entire walled city where everyone is a scholar between 18 and 25, or else their paid servants?), highly specialized rather than diverse in any real sense, but nonetheless a lovely idea -- a little world of partying scholar-kids dedicated to immersion in a particular ritualized game of semester-long sprints of learning, modest debauchery, activism-in-training, and "gentlemanly pursuits".

It's a beautiful thing, and to be enjoyed. Enjoy it, suck the juice out of it. But where it doesn't fit you, where you and College disagree, you should know that you might actually be right, and that life keeps getting bigger afterwards.

Rereading this, one thing that strikes me -- I touch on it above, but not in detail -- is the way that preprogrammed nostalgia is designed in as part of the product known as the Undergraduate Experience. Going to college I was acutely aware of the nostalgia which was awaiting me, in my future, for the time I was about to have. Indeed I was about to undergo something which was in a sense defined by the nostalgia I would have for it later -- that was somehow almost its core or its organizing principle. There's something very alienating about this aspect of the ritual that we Americans impose upon most of our middle- and owning-class young adults.

Posted by benrosen at December 4, 2011 12:38 PM | Up to blog

Huh. I don't remember feeling that sense of looming future nostalgia when I was in college. What I did feel was... I'm not sure what word I'm looking for. I remember visiting a friend at Northeastern and having this reaction of, "This is what TV and books and all of that told me college was supposed to look like," accompanied by a wistfulness that I would never have that experience. Then I stopped and thought about it for a moment and realized how much happier I was at Bard. But it was rather the way I felt about not going to my junior prom, where part of me wishes I had because it was my *prom* but the rest of me knows I wouldn't actually have enjoyed it.

As for being the best time of one's life... I don't know, maybe I'd thought that was supposed to be high school? And I already knew high school being the best time of your life was a lie, at least in my case. College was the best time in one sense, though, in that it was the one time in my life when I've had such a consistent group of real friends. The one school for which I would *want* a class ring is exactly the school that just didn't do them.

Posted by: Emily Gilman at December 12, 2011 09:51 PM

Hmm. I may of course be generalizing into a general social phenomenon what is more in the realm of family myths and institutions. I think my parents made their most consistent and profound friendships in college, and so I had internalized their romanticism about it. Whereas in fact, while I did make lasting friendships in college, I made more in high school... and have kept more of my high school friends than my college ones. But in high school those friendships were somewhat under a pall of "this isn't real life yet -- I'm going to move away and go to college and I'm told I'll forget all this, this will be nothing compared to what awaits" -- against which my soul rebelled.

That may have been idiosyncratic (I had a tendency to worry intensely about the future, which I have unfortunately passed on). But I do think the "preprogrammed nostalgia" is something colleges at least attempt -- even if not always successfully, and even if it competes with a culture of high school nostalgia, etc. But certainly the whole engine of reunions and alumni donations and so on, is a mammoth enterprise that tries pretty early to sow the seeds it will later reap...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at December 13, 2011 06:17 PM

Yeah, my closest friends in high school were Alphans living in other states, or childhood friends who lived in other towns, or older friends who graduated ahead of me. Part of it also had to do with where I was mentally and emotionally, and the extent to which I was willing to get close to people.

High school was always something I had to get through. College was the light at the end of the tunnel: the place I got to *choose,* with people who *chose* to be there too and who wanted and valued, if not exactly the same things I did, at least similar things. And the Bard population is still self-selecting enough that that logic actually worked out in practice.

Posted by: Emily Gilman at December 14, 2011 12:55 AM

I recall my mom saying something along the lines of "at college you will make the friends you will keep for the rest of your life". To a good degree that is true - but I am a keeper of people in general (much as my mom was to my eye), so I still have friends from all different parts of my life.

If I were to take a tally, I guess Wesleyan would win with regard to long term 'closest' friends - but not by much.

Going to graduate school recently was a much more fulfilling educational experience for me than college was. I spent a lot of time just figuring out what to take next at school - with an eye to finishing more than an eye to any specific career or educational goal. If I could send my college self advice I would tell me to take more writing and computer classes.

Posted by: Jeanne at December 30, 2011 06:04 PM
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