Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Some Thoughts for the College Graduate

I came upon this article in the American Scholar semi- by accident today, and was overwhelmed by its truth. Even though it was published last summer, it seemed to resonate so perfectly now, with some of my best friends graduating this year, both at Columbia and elsewhere. What else to think about after finals are over and all is done except, what was the point?

Full article here

Basically the article explored the unknown underbelly of ivy league academia: namely, that it simply isn't as amazing and wonderful as everyone (Stanley Fish, for example) assumes. And not only ivies, either. Consider schools like Stanford and UChicago, both of which have a similar mentality to Yale and Columbia, schools were the vast majority of students are legacies, athletes, or econ majors (insert obligatory shiver and gagging noises).

Of course, as often happens, what really resonated with me is the writer's take on class diversity. This semester I had an article on graffiti published in the Gadfly, Columbia's philosophy magazine, but the managing editor refused to publish the first drafts on account of what he assumed to be either classism or anti-Americanism (both of which might have been at least partially true). The original article questioned the interaction college students have with the "real" world, and mentioned that the majority of college students tend to be far above the average, economically-speaking. Alas, that was too socialist for the Gadfly, and the article became that much less interesting in the long run. However, it certainly is nice to know that writer/former professor William Deresiewicz feels the same:

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous.

Homogenous indeed. In high school I was considered middling in terms of income, but in college I only knew one person who was poorer than I, and she dropped out after two years, coupled with crippling psychological complications which may or may not have been Columbia's fault. It's hard not to be classist when put into such an economically stratifying situation, in which you can't walk through campus without overhearing someone discussing their latest trip to Barbados or their family's summer beach house in the Hampton's. In the grand scheme of things, this doesn't disturb me. I live fairly comfortably in my blend of thrift store and bargain rack ensembles. What annoys me even more is the preoccupation with what is called living "comfortably," that my friends from home and I continuously scoff at:

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be.

Why does going to an ivy league school (or any college, for that matter) automatically produce an income-obsessed slave to Adam Smith and Ayn Rand? Unfortunately it seems to do so, all-too-often, making my absurdly intelligent graduating friends worry about not having the ideal job, or actually taking a risk... like spending a year writing poetry, or working in South Korea, like my friend Billy. My friend Rebecca and I constantly talk about our worries about getting into the perfect grad school program for literature, and at times I'm tempted to give up on it all. Why the fuss for graduate school? To prove to the world I'm smart enough? What if I'd rather work in the art world? And, even if in the art world, wouldn't I much rather work in a smaller non-profit than a pretentious gallery?

I cannot help imagining my 20-year college reunion. It becomes all too similar to an episode of Daria, except instead of the Daria I always assumed myself to be, I'm Quinn, or Daria's mother, bickering with friends. "Oh? The curator of PS1? How lovely. I, of course, always found more satisfaction working in a real gallery." "Oh but of course there's no place like Christie's. Did you hear about that piece we sold?" "Oh yes, quite, but there's nothing so satisfying as working in academia... I'm a gold nugget on CULPA now, did you know? And my fifth book is out next august..." These terrible daydreams tend to go on for a while. But nonetheless there's a truth to them. Why do we do it, instead of doing what we truly love? I was fully satisfied, intellectually and physically, working at the Landmark. Does this mean I am destined to serve popcorn the rest of my life? Do I find more satisfaction writing french papers on cinema? It's hard to say.

Here's another random part of the article:

I’ve been struck, during my time at Yale, by how similar everyone looks. You hardly see any hippies or punks or art-school types, and at a college that was known in the ’80s as the Gay Ivy, few out lesbians and no gender queers. The geeks don’t look all that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Thirty-two flavors, all of them vanilla.

Vanilla indeed. Mild personalities, yes, but much of them sugar-coated. Where are the punks? This semester at Columbia I saw one person with dyed hair, and I'm just going to assume they're from NYU. It is, what this writer called, "the tyranny of the normal," this pressure to be socially acceptable that keeps me from wearing my platform combat boots that I love so dearly. If Yale is Vanilla Preppy, Columbia is a very specific brand of Hipster. Then again, I see the world with slightly different eyes that tend to (unfortunately) ignore every person I find uninteresting. Then again, Columbia is no Yale. The very essence of Columbia is its lack of normalcy; we're mostly a bunch of disaffected misfits. And I quite like that. I just wish more people came to the world with Stanley Fish's passionate intellectualism, rather than megalomaniacal Trump syndrome.

I came to college to read books. College isn't a vocational academy; its purpose is largely nonutilitarian, and that is the point itself. So, I guess what I am trying to say in an extremely un-pithy way, is that the writer of this article is right. College is there to satisfy the intellect. Treating it as a means to an end is losing the point for its creation: to find interest in the human. Mindless self-indulgence will just have to wait a while.

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