Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Grass Isn't Greener On The Other Side

Yesterday I read I Am Charlotte Simmons. Contrary to reviews, I thought it was quite good. Classic Tom Wolfe, in fact, insofar as he sets up a compelling situation in three or four hundred pages and then spends two or three hundred pages trying to bring it to a neat conclusion, something which is invariably unsatisfying and unconvincing. What he gets right is the basic shock of college life where people seem to devote a disturbing amount of energy and attention to partying and that sort of thing, considering that you attend on of the finest academic institutions out there. Then you have to figure out where you fit in -- and where your academics fit in. Of course he exaggerates, but it does ring true. Even at Swarthmore there is the odd experience of seeing girls being serious -- and damn good -- students during the day, and then on weekend nights being, well, differently put together. Something vaguely similar happens with boys. That dissonance is disturbing because we want people to be easily understandable: simple and one -dimensional.

Wolfe wants this to be a terrible terrible thing which it isn't. Why is it so bad to party and etc.? Just because this isn't what has always been, why is it bad? In the book he offers the answer that it's bad because you lose all that you have been, you stop valuing all that you once did. A typical conservative argument. And it is unconvincing for two reasons. One, we can bring out relativism: why not indulge pleasures of the flesh and all, what's so wrong with stupid fun? What do we gain by moral uprightness? Two, he gives far too little credit to people's ability to hang on to what is important to them. Sure people experiment first semester of college, but it strikes me as a sort of things-I'll-never-do-again kind of thing, not a give up all that you were. Also, plenty of people are able to sustain a partying life and being academically and intellectually serious, these are not mutually exclusive.

Henry and I always joke that everywhere else people are getting a "real" education, as opposed to the weak stuff we're getting at Swarthmore. And Wolfe is guilty of much the same thing, he thinks that at some point people were pure and diligent and studied hard and never partied. Sure the ways in which people party and blow off work change over time, and a given manifestation can seem surprising, but I'm enough of a believer in the immutability of human nature to think that he's comparing today to an age that never happened. Throughout time people have made reference to the shocking behavior of college students, and they will continue to do so. Given that Wolfe is so trenchant a social observer, I would have hoped to get a more subtle indictment of the college experience.

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